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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Found By Strangers

Matthew 2:1-12

Gene Baker was a pastor serving a small church on the Charlottesville District many years ago. His church pictured themselves as a friendly congregation where they warmly welcomed visitors into their faith family. One Sunday Gene asked the congregation how many of them thought they were a warm and welcoming church. Every hand rose, and broad smiles of self-congratulation wreathed every face. "How many of you remember the Smith family?" Gene then asked. Not a hand went up. "They were visiting us two Sundays ago, " Gene said. "They're looking for a church to become active in and join. Not one single person in this congregation other than I spoke to them from the time they set foot on our property until the time they left. They told me they would not be back." The congregation was in shock, and decided to take a long, hard look at how they greeted visitors.

Often, it takes an outsider to see things that we can't see for ourselves. During my first year as a District Superintendent, I had the opportunity to slip into churches across the Ashland District without being recognized, and observe how churches welcomed visitors. One of the things I realized I never had before was the degree to which the typical church worship service is incomprehensible to strangers. That's why we print page numbers for the Lord's Prayer and the Doxology in the bulletin. That's why we try to remember that the most important person here every Sunday is the person who's never been here before, especially if they've never been to Christian worship before. Often, it's the outsider who can see things we can't see for ourselves.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means a realization of the larger meaning of something. It's that "aha" moment when all the pieces come together, and we see as we have never seen before. In cartoons, it's when the light bulb goes off above someone's head. It's the double-take in movies or TV, accompanied by a gong or a boing. One description says epiphany is when the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is fitted into place, and for the first time we can see the whole picture. In the calendar of the Christian Church, it comes on the twelfth day of Christmas -- January 6 -- when the church celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men at the manger. Not incidentally, if you go to any museum to see great art depicting Jesus' birth, you will search in vain for an image of the shepherds and Wise Men in the stable at the same time. The Magi -- Wise Men -- may have arrived as late as two years after the birth, given that Herod orders the massacre of all children in the area up to the age of two after conferring with the Magi.

Magi -- the word comes from the same root as magic -- were from what we now know as Iran. They were astrologers, reading the stars to determine the course of events. They were probably followers of the Persian philosopher/priest Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who lived a thousand years before Jesus, and taught that all life is a struggle between truth and falsehood. His philosophy influenced Greek, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim thought. They were not kings, despite the song. The Bible never says three: there were at least two, and one Christian tradition says there were twelve, comparable to the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles. There were three gifts: gold, signifying the royalty who commonly were the only persons to possess it; frankincense, used in religious rituals even to today to indicate God's presence; and myrrh, a perfume used for beauty treatments and for embalming. With these gifts, the Magi indicate that Jesus is the supreme ruler of the world; that God is present in Jesus; and that Jesus is a fragrant and beautiful offering for the world.[1] These strangers, these outsiders, these pagans, were able to see what the insiders could not see for themselves.

The season of Epiphany -- from today until Ash Wednesday on February 17th -- is traditionally a time when the church emphasizes mission and outreach to the world. We "Go Tell It On The Mountain," that Jesus is born and is king of all the earth. We have something we know that the world doesn't. But what if we turn that on its head? Just as the Magi -- strangers and foreigners - were able to discern in the movements of the stars that something cosmic had happened, perhaps you and I need to learn from the strangers and foreigners of our day the truths that we cannot see for ourselves. If, as Thomas Merton said, arrogance is never a sign of grace, then how can we, in the name of grace, suppose that we have the truth and no one else does? On Epiphany, it is the outsider who brings the truth to the insiders, not the other way around.

Yesterday's Washington Post printed a startling article by Muqtedar Khan, Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware:

Muslims and Christians together constitute over 50 percent of the world. If they lived in peace, we would be half way to world peace. One small step we can take towards fostering Muslim-Christian harmony is to tell and retell positive stories and abstain from mutual demonization.

In this article I propose to remind both Muslims and Christians about a promise that Prophet Muhammed made to Christians. The knowledge of this promise can have enormous impact on Muslim conduct towards Christians. Muslims generally respect the precedent of their Prophet and try to practice it in their lives.

In 628 AD, a delegation from St. Catherine's Monastery (the first Christian monastery, located at the foot of Mt. Sinai) came to Prophet Muhammed and requested his protection. He responded by granting them a charter of rights:

The Promise to St. Catherine:

"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."[2]

What if, Dr. Khan asks, Muslims and Christians began acting as if they had something to learn from each other? The Magi were not Jews, and they certainly weren't Christians, yet we celebrate their insight about the person and work of Jesus two thousand years later. The Magi were strangers who found Jesus because they were looking for God. Is it possible there might be some other folk out there, not part of this flock, who can teach us something about God?

I am not suggesting we should all become Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or something other than disciples of Jesus Christ. What I am suggesting is that the Bible is chocked full of strangers like Melchizidek and Pharaoh's daughter and Rahab and Ruth and Cyrus and the Roman centurion and the Syrophoenician woman and, yes, the Wise Men, who taught the believers what faithfulness looked like. The strangers in our midst this morning may have something hugely important to teach us about what it means to serve God. Books and music and art and movies and ideas that are anything but Christian in name and appearance may have profound insights into truth and into God that we may miss if we stick to the party line. Jesus is ever so much bigger than any box to which he is confined, just as he is so much greater than any tomb in which he is sealed.

On Epiphany, we celebrate how Jesus is found, and known, and worshipped, by foreigners. Maybe if we want to find, and know, and worship Jesus, we should look for him where he said he would be found -- among the strangers.

[1] Stookey, Laurence Hull, Calendar: Christ's Time For the Church, Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 113


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