Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Tom Herbek
January 8, 2017
The Wise Men changed after they found this unlikely king in a manger. They had to change their understanding of how a king comes into this world. It changed their understanding of what was most important in life. When we embrace mystery, it can change us. And then, when we go home, we cannot travel the same route, because we are not the same person. We go home a new way, on a different path. Sometimes the different path also changes us. And the journey back home is an entirely different journey than the journey to our destination.
When the Wise Men returned home, they took a different route, and because they had been changed by what they saw in Bethlehem, they also saw their route home in a brand new way. Sometimes it is important that we deliberately choose a new path, a different way, so that our eyes will be opened and we will notice things that we don’t see on our well-traveled-route.
Rachel Remen deliberately chose to do this at her own home:
When I was remodeling my home, I was torn between two ways of creating access to my front door. One way involved building a flight of steps from the street that opened onto a path leading directly to my door. From the moment you set foot on the first step, you could see the front door and know exactly where you were going.
The other way was quite different. You would come through a gate and climb a short flight of steps to a small landing. Just beyond this landing is a tree of great beauty. As you climb, all you can see is this tree. When you reach the landing, you see nothing until you reach a deck at the top, where looking to your right you discover a breathtaking sixty-mile view of San Francisco Bay.
Crossing this deck brings you to three gradual steps leading off to the left. Climbing these you unexpectedly find the little meadow which is my backyard, and rising from it, the exquisite profile of Mount Tamalpais, the highest mountain in our county. Only then can you see my front door, which is now only a few steps away. You have been moving toward it steadily, without knowing, all along.
In struggling to make this decision I consulted two architects, both of whom told me that one of the basic principles of the architecture of front entrances is that people need to see where they are going from the start.
They agreed that the uncertainty of the second approach would create unease in any guest coming to the house for the first time. Despite the uniformity of this expert advice, I ultimately chose the second way.
Thinking about it now, it seems to me that knowing where we are going encourages us to stop seeing and hearing and allows us to fall asleep. In fact, when I find myself on such a direct path, a part of me rushes ahead to the front door the moment I see it. As I hurry to overtake this part, I usually do not really see anything that I pass.
Not knowing where you are going creates more than uncertainty; it fosters a sense of aliveness, an appreciation of the particulars around you. It wakes you up much in the same way that illness does. I chose the second way.
In fact, perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different. I have done many things in order to achieve a valued goal only to discover in time that the real goal my choices have led me toward is something else entirely. Something I could not even have known existed when I first set foot upon the path. The purpose underlying life often wears the mask of whatever has our attention at the time. The very reason that we were born, our greatest blessing, or our way to serve may come into our lives looking like a new car, a chance to travel, or a cup of the finest coffee.
The truth is that we are always moving toward mystery and so we are far closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly.
–My Grandfather’s Blessings
Our society today seems to be very uncomfortable with mystery. The rise of fundamentalism in all religions today – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu – all the religions – is pointing towards the uncomfortable nature of mystery for so many. Yet, it is only when we embrace and move toward mystery that we discover life in all its possibilities – all its richness. It was well-said by C.S. Lewis: “When the most important things in our life happen, we quite often don’t know, at the moment, what is going on.” It is our uncomfortableness with mystery, our desire for certainty and clear-cut answers that is making it difficult to find any middle ground, in our society and our world today. As Krista Tippett writes in her book, Speaking of Faith:
Our sacred traditions should help us live more thoughtfully, generously, and hopefully with the tensions of our age. But to grasp that, we must look anew at the very nature of faith, and at what it might really mean to take religion seriously in human life and in the world.
I’m drawn to the contours and depths of what I call “the vast middle”- left, right, and center, between the poles of competing certainties that have hijacked our cultural discourse. In the vast middle, faith is as much about questions as it is about answers. It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to honor the truth of one’s own convictions and the mystery of the convictions of others. The context of most religious virtue is relationship – practical love in families and communities, and care for the suffering and the stranger beyond the bounds of one’s own identity. Christianity puts an exacting fine point on this, calling also for love of enemies. These qualities of religion should enlarge, not narrow, our public conversation about all of the important issues before us. They should reframe it.
By reframing it, we are able to move toward mystery. When we move toward mystery, toward embracing the unknown, toward the places where we learn, then we become more of who we have been created to be.
In his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being,” W.H. Auden has each of the wise men give a reason why he follows the star, followed by a chorus where all three express in unison their common quest:
First Wise Man:
To discover how to be truthful now
Is the reason I follow this star.
Second Wise Man:
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.
Third Wise Man:
To discover how to be loving now
Is the reason I follow this star.
The Three Wise Men:
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.
The wise men were only able to become fully human because they were willing to follow the star, and undertake a journey filled with mystery. God calls us each to become – not who we have always been – but who we can become. Life cannot be lived backwards, into the way life used to be. Life can only be lived forward, into possibilities that are yet to be seen, yet to be discovered, yet to be revealed to us. We never know what will change us, what will help us to look at life and at ourselves in whole new ways. Rachel Remen was once asked by a friend to help give away money, and describes how it changed her perspective on the resources we have, and the ways that we can use them.
Giving away money can be demanding and even lonely. A few years ago a friend of mine, obligated to yearly philanthropy by her inheritance, chose several of her friends and gave us each $20,000 a year to give away in any way that we saw best.
It was a steep learning curve. I was surprised at how quickly this task changed the way in which I saw things. I had developed a therapist’s eye for growth in people, but I had never before noticed the places where things were trying to move forward in the culture. Groups of people or individuals whose vision, if nurtured, could lead to a better world. I suppose that I never saw them because I did not think I personally had the means to be of help to them and so they had nothing to do with me. You might never notice plants struggling to grow around you, either, until someone hands you a full watering can. But I could see them now. They were everywhere.
One evening I was eating out in a local restaurant with a friend. The dining room was casually arranged. Along one wall there was a long padded bench in front of which stood a row of small tables three or four feet apart. My friend and I were shown to one of these tables. I sat on the bench and my friend sat opposite me on a chair. At the table next to us two men were dining.
My friend and I had been talking for some time when I gradually became aware of the conversation at this next table. One of the men was telling the other about a program he and some of his Spanish-speaking colleagues had been running as volunteers.
The program conducted a series of support groups for poverty-level Spanish-speaking families who had lost children to illness, accident, or violence. In the past, many of the hospitals in our city had contributed a small amount of support to this program, which barely covered hiring a small staff and renting places to hold these meetings.
The man speaking was obviously upset. So much good had come of this program, he told his friend. In the past few years over a hundred couples had been helped to preserve marriages torn open by grief and blame and helped to parent their remaining children. But now many of the city’s hospitals had merged or gone out of business or been taken over by organizations that had no interest in supporting such a program, and it had fallen through the cracks. Desperately he and his colleagues had tried to raise the money to continue this work, but they had not been successful. They had been able to raise only $500. This would not last much longer, and the program would close in a few months. As he spoke, he seemed close to tears.
His friend was sympathetic and concerned. “How much do you need to keep things going, Steve?” he asked. By now I was eavesdropping shamelessly. “A great deal of money,” said Steve sadly. “More than we could ever raise.”
“How much is it?” asked his friend again. “Four thousand dollars,” Steve replied.
Reaching across the few feet between us, I touched Steve lightly on the arm. “You got it,” I said, and, reaching into my purse, I pulled out my checkbook.
Without the generosity of my friend, I doubt that I would have responded to the conversation at the next table or even heard it. But because of her visionary program, I knew that I had something of value to give. I gave away her money for three years and an odd thing has happened. Now that I no longer have money to give away, I still notice the growing edge of things and I still respond to it. I give away my time, my skills, my network of friends, my life experience. You do not need money to be a philanthropist. We all have assets. You can befriend life with your bare hands.
Moving toward mystery may mean that we use our resources in ways we would never have expected. It may mean that we journey down roads that are completely foreign to us. Perhaps we will find that following stars, and giving gifts that are quite unexpected to strangers we meet, will enable us to return home quite different, changed in unexpected ways from the person who started out on the journey.
Each of us, in our own lives, is moving toward mystery. When we do not know where we are going, and we are simply following the light in the sky, we are moving toward mystery. And when we return home a different way, it completes the change in us, in the way we see ourselves and our world, and life itself. It wakes us up to what life is all about.
I hope that, in 2017, we will all experience some serious mystery, an uncertainty about those things that we are moving toward, and a lack of clarity about where we are going.
May the mystery we experience this year change us, and our perspective, and may our journeys give us a new awareness of the mystery of life, so much so that we will notice life in a new way, see things we have never seen before, and return home a different way, and as different people. After all, a God who comes as a baby to a peasant couple in an insignificant town is not a God to be found in likely places.
May 2017 surprise and change us, and may we be able to see, in new and surprising ways, the mystery of God’s presence all around us!