Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Navigating the World (Matthew 2:1-12)

Years back in The Christian Century, religious commentator Rodney Clapp whimsically recounts his experiences with a Tom-Tom GPS unit. Global positioning systems (GPS) can be a travel aide for long car trips and the directionally challenged. Like all technology, the GPS units can create complication while designed for ease of use. Clapp tells how the Tom-Tom GPS is capable of leading him right to his destination as surely as the GPS “got [him] lost in a tangle of new lanes and one-way streets in harborside Miami. And for a long, amusing stretch of rural Texas, it pictured [him] rocketing at 80 miles per hour through rivers and across wheat fields parallel to the highway on which [he] was actually traveling.”

For his amusement, Clapp reprogrammed his GPS to speak with the voice of British comedian John Cleese. When making a turn, Cleese instructs, “At the next exit, bear right, beaver left”. Upon arrival Cleese says, “You have now arrived at your destination and are on your own—I will not carry your bags”.

Rodney Clapp writes, “Even as we jet over oceans and view live TV transmissions from the other side of the world, we are more parochial than the ancients in one way. We have lost the sky.” Clapp notes how the US Navy no longer teaches celestial navigation, or sailing by the stars. We twenty-first century folks have precision technology to figure our bearings, though in the process, Clapp fears “we have lost our attention to the sky”. In his essay, Clapp recalls how the sky was so integral to generations past. He notes various stories about the constellations told by ancient Greeks, medieval Europeans, and Native Americans. The stars engaged the human imagination in ways Clapp feels is dissipating as GPS units keep our gaze on latitude and mileage, rather than searching out the Little Dipper for directions as well as wonder.

Clapp wonders, “Could the Magi have located the Christ child with modern navigational technology?” In one sense, yes, they could have programmed their GPS to guide them from somewhere in Persia, where it was presumed they traveled, to Bethlehem, provided they knew that was where they would wind up at journey’s end. The GPS could have told them which way to ride their camels, even where to find a decent inn while on layover in Jerusalem. The GPS could even insult them in the voice of John Cleese: “At the next exit, you will arrive at your destination—the Prince of Peace, the Messiah, God Incarnate, yea, verily, the only begotten son of Almighty God. And, please bear in mind—I will NOT carry your myrrh.”

In answering Clapp’s question, the gospel writer Matthew responds a polite “no”. The Magi made their travels as a sort of religious pilgrimage. They did not know where this star would take them, only that their readings of astrological signs and portents suggested royalty was about to be born. Such a worldview sounds a bit archaic to us, the stuff of legends, which speaks to Clapp’s observation. In today’s world, Matthew’s readers presume a world where precision navigation is the norm, and the Magi’s trip might strike a twenty-first century reader as a wild goose chase.

The story of the Magi asks us to think about the ways we see the world. One person can see a star and look away with indifference. Another person can write poetry. See Robert Frost’s poem “Take Something Like a Star”, wherein the poet beholds a star and starts trying to understand the star, eventually chastened to reverence by the star’s ability simply to be

“Say something!” the poet demands. The celestial response is terse and enigmatic. “And it says, ‘I burn.’” Thus, the poet rails,

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

The poet soon realizes there is something more to be learned from a star than he first thought possible. He writes of the star:

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
to carry praise or blame too far,
we may take something like a star
to stay our minds on and be staid.

Matthew’s gospel makes it clear this is a devotional journey. The Magi model the reverence due the Christ child, providing a subtle counterpoint to Herod’s paranoid jealousies. The wise men travel from a far distance, while Herod prowls his throne room. The Magi are outsiders to the religious worldview of first century Judaism, yet they, not the people, and certainly not their king, are the ones paying homage. The Magi arrive to pay their respect, whereas Herod uses the full might of his court to reign death down upon countless innocents, as he fears the Magi’s word that competition has been born somewhere in his territories. While Herod sees nothing good has come of this, the Magi fall on their knees and as the King James Version puts it, “pay him homage”.

The Magi see above the petty world of Herod the mysterious hand of God at work in the world. To travel so far and to carry such extravagant gifts is not an act of checking out the competition. The Magi did not subscribe to local religious customs themselves, but they knew an event of great significance was unfolding. As part of Matthew’s gospel, their presence in the narrative reminds that even the outsider or those persons society deems contrary can see something new is at hand.

When the Magi find themselves at their long-awaited destination, they celebrate the little child. Most folks would find it puzzling, such a journey to find greatness ends with a wee boy in a backwater town. The magi started out upon their journey searching for a king. They found the current demagogue in Jerusalem, a bully whose moodiness kept an entire city on edge. Others might wonder why the Magi opted to risk Herod’s wrath by failing to report back as requested and heading home. In the graceful words of the King James Version, a vision prompts them “to go home by another way”.

This story of the Magi’s long, strange journey offers a redemptive word. We are journeyers along the path of life. In our daily lives, we navigate all manner of terrain, some not even remotely geographical. We navigate our identity as persons of means (some, much, and not much), as persons who live in this country and may or may not see the global privilege U.S. citizens enjoy at the expense of other countries. We are people who live on varying footings with those around us, as no one enjoys a completely level playing field in society. Our gender, racial/ethnic or social identities cause us to find doors open or closed to us on a regular basis. Some people help us get where our dreams hope to go. Other people take pleasure in hindering us. We travel miles to achieve things in our lives that others simply find right at the taking at their first opportunity. Add to this mix our journey of faith, and it gets even more complex. Faith complicates things as our religious values often ask us to take detours or roads less traveled (a little homage to Frost there). Sometimes, our beliefs embolden us to go places off the map. Like the Magi, our faith can prompt us to go home by another way.

The gospel itself welcomes the earnest outsider like the Magi reeking of frankincense or another one with an aching back from lugging a chest of gold. The gospel welcomes an earnest mother who says “yes” to God, despite the public shaming sure to follow. The carpenter Joseph who dreams like his namesake in Genesis and likewise follows those dreams with due reverence. The gospel helps us see where the truth lies in the world: that riddle called Jesus. A baby who sleeps, eats, learns to crawl then toddle, who all the while is God incarnate.

For the first time, we see a pathway unfolding before us, one not on any map produced by Rand-McNally or calculated by GPS. Whether swaddled in the manger, spinning a parable before the multitudes, eating and drinking with his beloved at table, Jesus offers a new pathway through this world, a new map for how we are to live in this world and treat one another. In hearing these narratives, we learn to see with new eyes. We see the futility of those who have worldly power as well as the magnificent vulnerability of God found in Christ Jesus.

Some might call it a wild goose chase.

Others might say that we have found our bearings, heading for home.

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