Looking to see Jesus in a new light this Christmas Season? Well put on your Zoroastrian hats and come along for the ride!
A man wanted to become a member of a church in his neighborhood but was having trouble gaining admission because the church was notoriously exclusive. The man decided to pray to God about the matter. He told God that he really wished to become a member of that church, and God answered him:
Are you kidding? I’ve been trying to get inside that church for years. It can’t be done.
A bishop in the church tells the true story of a parish in southern Maryland that he and his wife attended for over two years and still never felt like they had become a real part of that community; they never felt, even after two years that they were one of them.
That church, you see, was over three-hundred years old, and apparently if your great-grandparents weren’t buried in the churchyard, you were pretty much doomed to be an outsider. But a few miles away was a Methodist Church, where they went very infrequently.
After all, the bishop adds, we are not Methodists. But each time we went, we were made to feel welcome and accepted although we had never been Methodists, and we were probably the only white folks to ever worship in that church. (1)
Despite better than 2,000 years of Christians proclaiming a Gospel of competition and the drawing of sacred boundaries of belief and practice, and although the hours between 8 a.m. and Noon on Sunday mornings are probably the most segregated four hours in any given week, this Methodist Church in southern Maryland has managed to get it. They have managed to not only understand but to integrate Jesus’ message that when the proverbial Kingdom net is dragged in the sea, it is meant to gather everyone without differentiation.
Many visitors to the church where I was Rector for 22 years used to tell me how much they liked the welcome message on the inside of our worship booklets which read:
We are an inclusive church family that celebrates diversity. Whoever you are, whatever your origin, wherever you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are one of us.
Of all the things that took place during a worship hour in that church, that statement is what they liked the most. I think people liked it because it gave them breathing room, and because, unlike many statements the church has made, it doesn’t put up any more blockades, and it doesn’t close any more doors to people on the outside.
The Magi in our Gospel this morning were on the outside. They were visitors to Israel and her religion. Every year, when I read the mysterious and alluring Gospel of their visit to Bethlehem, and each time I picture them inside that crude cave home, kneeling before a Palestinian baby, flanked by two peasant parents steeped in Jewish Tradition, my reaction is the same:
THEY DON’T BELONG THERE.
Magi comes from the Greek word for magician. Many biblical scholars believe that these visitors from the east practiced a religion called Zoroastrianism, a religion with a strange philosophical mixture of Astrology, science and wizardry. Such practices had long before been banned in the Hebrew Scriptures, most notably in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. (2)
These magi certainly don’t seem to belong in the Gospel of Matthew, whose author refers to the Hebrew Scriptures no less than 65 times just in that one Gospel. And yet, because of the all-encompassing love that came down at Christmas, because of Jesus who refused to lay the ax to the root of the tree,because Jesus refused to draw lines and chose instead to draw circles, larger and larger circles, because of the overpowering message of grace in the Gospel of Jesus, our Christ, we find that not only do the Magi become Gospel headliners, but we find that they truly DO belong in the humble home of the Holy Family.
They would travel great distances. They would study the heavens. They would search every known data bank of information in the quest to find that which gives their world meaning. Oh, how we Christians could stand to use them as a model for our own spiritual quest!
The Magi are the symbols of the truth that every human heart is on a search for wholeness and meaning. This is what I believe the Church chooses to call the pursuit of salvation.
The story of these Magi outsiders comes early in the Gospel, and comes around every year, at the beginning of the year, to remind us that Christianity was never meant to be the exclusive vendor of that wholeness and meaning, that the church was never meant to be a gated community, that the Christmas story isn’t about God drawing lines in the sands of orthodoxy, that the Christmas story isn’t about the evolution of a specific tradition that will be able to speak to and for any and every person in the world, no matter their culture. The Magi come to us year after year to remind us that Christmas is the story of God choosing to move into the human neighborhood.
Being inclusive doesn’t mean accepting ONLY those who come at least hoping to believe what we believe, no, being inclusive means that we understand that there are no ONLYS when it comes to our love, and that our love has absolutely no boundaries.
Celebrating diversity means that just as the love of Jesus blurred the borders between Israel and Samaria, so our love will blur the borders between the races, between the rich and the poor, between Easterners and Westerners, between Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus.
The Hasidic masters tell the story of the rabbi who disappeared every Shabbat eve. Every Friday night he went way into the forest, and the members of the synagogue thought that he went to commune with God. One night before the Sabbath, they deputized one of their cantors to follow the rabbi and observe this holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman. She was sick and crippled into a painful posture.
Once there, the rabbi rolled up his sleeves and cooked for this Gentile woman. He carried her firewood; he swept her floor. Then when the Friday evening chores were finished, he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue.
Back in the village, the people made their demands of the cantor they had sent. They asked him,
How did it look when our rabbi ascended into the divine? Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?
Oh no, the cantor answered after a thoughtful pause, our rabbi went much, much higher than that.
The language of inclusive love is the only language that can tear down fences and cause walls to crumble. The Magi who visit the Christ Child remind us of the sometimes hard to swallow fact that if we would only stop using the language of exclusivity in the presentation of our faith, Jesus just might stand a chance of being a person in whom even non-Christians can meet the Divine! We just need to take Jesus out of the small and tightly wrapped box we have preserved so carefully lo these two-thousand and twenty-three years.
Mahatma Gandhi, a life-long Hindu, had pictures of Jesus hanging in his room, he knew scripture better than most Christians I know. He was intensely moved by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and applied those teachings to life as he knew it. Is there a better description of discipleship? About Christianity he once wrote:
Please do not flatter yourselves with the belief that a mere recital of that celebrated verse in St. John makes one a Christian. If I have read the Bible correctly, I know many who have never known the name of Jesus Christ, many who have even rejected the official interpretations of Christianity, but would nevertheless, if Jesus came in our midst today in the flesh, be probably owned by him more than many of us.
Gandhi had met the Holy and the Sacred in Jesus, though he sought no conversion to any creed or doctrine. Does that really make him that much less a Christian than you or I? Would someone holding similar views in any of the communities we live in in the year 2023 be able to become an active and beloved member of any one of our numerous churches?
You see, I believe that when we insist on making everybody sign on the dotted lines of our Confessions of Faith, we only exude a kind of arrogance that renders us evangelically impotent.
Am I saying that one belief is as good as another? Absolutely not! Because it doesn’t have nearly as much to do with good or bad as it has to do with relevance. As the adage goes,
God is the same everywhere, but we are not.
I couldn’t imagine setting out on a quest for wholeness and meaning or searching for my salvation outside of the Christian Church. I suspect that most people reading this would feel the same way. But we will convince few outsiders in this world of the worth of that feeling unless we are willing to invite them inside, as Mary and Joseph and Jesus invited those outsiders from the East inside, without condition, without knowing what political or religious card they carried in their wallets, without them having to articulate their faith in words we like to hear, and without them having to leave all their doubts at home.
The Magi experienced the Holy and the Sacred in Jesus and were thus brought to their knees in awe and respect, but there is nothing in our Gospel this week to indicate that the Magi recited any creed or espoused new doctrine. There is nothing in this story to indicate that they did anything but return to their land to be the best Zoroastrians they could be, with one exception:
They had met God in a new and unique and humbling way, and I suspect that like all of us who meet our God in Jesus at Christmas, they were never quite the same.
(1) As told by Most Rev. Dr. Robert M Bowman, Presiding Bishop of the United Catholic Church. From the sermon, “Lord We Do Belong,” Sept. 27, 1997
(2) See Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27
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