Monday, January 06, 2014

The Stars We Follow (J. Barry Vaughn, Jan. 5, 2014)

In Matthew's gospel we are told that the magi visited the infant Jesus, bringing with them gifts for the wondrous child - gold and frankincense and myrrh.


Scarcely any figures in scripture are more mysterious than the magi. Matthew says that they were from the East but does not say what country. Were they from Persia, Arabia, or India or somewhere else? We don't know.


Furthermore, scripture does not even tell us how many magi visited the infant Jesus. There were three gifts, so we assume that there were three magi, but really we do not know.


Sometimes we say that they were kings, but there is absolutely no support for that. To be sure the gifts were valuable, the kinds of things that only kings could afford, but apart from the value of the gifts, we have no reason to believe that they were kings.


Finally, we do not even know that they were men. We call them "magi," the plural of magus. A magus was a member of the priestly caste of ancient Persia. We assume that they were men, and of course, women rarely traveled in the ancient world. But the fact is that we cannot know with certainty that the magi who traveled to see the infant Jesus did not include women.


Many of you have heard me say this, but it bears repeating. I am convinced from the text of Matthew's gospel that at least some of the magi were women. Listen again to the very first thing that the magi say when they arrive in Jerusalem: "Where is he who is born King of the Jews?" IN other words, they asked for directions! Now I ask you, do men EVER ask for directions?


I like the fact that we know very little about the magi. It allows me to exercise my imagination. In my mind's eye I see them poring over the ancient texts of Persia, India, and Israel. Night by night, I see them studying the movements of the stars.


The magi lived in a time when religion, science, and magic were much the same thing. They did not make the distinctions between these things that they do.


One of the things that impresses me about the magi is that they sought truth not only from their own religion and culture but also from others. It is plain that they had studied not only their own religious texts but also those of Israel. They knew that Jerusalem was the site of the temple and also the political capital. They knew that the Hebrew scriptures identified Jerusalem as both a holy and a royal city.


But they also sought truth in nature, in what today we would call science. They studied the movements of the stars. Today we would call this astrology, but the fact is that the people of ancient cultures such as Persia and India had remarkably detailed and accurate star charts.


There is are several  important lessons in this for us today:


First, we too often listen only to the texts and voices of our own culture and assume that wisdom can be found only there. Christians listen only to their Bible, Jews to theirs, Muslims to theirs, and so on. Now make no mistake: We are right to listen first and primarily to our own texts. God promises to speak to us from the pages of the Bible. We can be sure that when we study the Bible faithfully, with open minds and hearts, we will find guidance. But there is no reason to think that there is no wisdom in the traditions of other faiths.


The most important thing that I learned from my interfaith clergy group in Birmingham is that wisdom can be found just about everywhere. I believe that I have become a better Christian by becoming well acquainted with Judaism. I spent a year working with a piano teacher who was a Buddhist and we began every lesson by meditating together. I don't think that made me any less of a Christian. On the contrary, I believe that it deepened my faith.


The second thing I want to point out is that the magi studied not only written texts, they also studied the stars. Another way to say that is to say that they not only studied the written word of God, they also studied God's book of nature. Too often in our day and time science and religion are enemies. That impoverishes both of them, and the fault is on both sides. Religious leaders are educated almost exclusively in the humanities. Scientists are probably more likely to be well read in the humanities, as well as science, but there is little conversation between the two disciplines.


That was not the case in the ancient world, because the ancients did not make the distinctions that we do today.


I read a troubling article yesterday that said that more and more religious people, especially if they are also political conservatives, are coming to reject the idea of evolution. And more and more scientists are becoming skeptical of and hostile toward religion.


This is very dangerous. I believe that God speaks with one voice, but speaks in different languages. God speaks to us through the Bible but God also speaks in the book of nature. And if we would really understand God, we need to listen to what God is saying both through the Bible and through nature.


I have one more point to make: God also spoke to the magi through a dream. Listen again to the last sentence of the gospel reading: "...having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road."


"...having been warned in a dream..." Has God ever spoken to you in a dream? God has spoken to me in a dream. I believe that God has spoken to most of us, maybe all of us, in dreams, but how many of us listened and paid attention? We live in a world that does not encourage us to hear the voice of God in dreams. That is the stuff of people who set themselves up as psychic readers and visionaries, people we look down upon as fakers and charlatans. And most of the time, we are right to do that. But that does not mean that God does not have something to say to us in dreams.


But the magi were indeed wise men (and maybe wise women, too). They listened for and heard the voice of God in sacred texts, in the book of nature, and in dreams. We need to be just as wise and just as attentive.


Today is the first Sunday of a new year. It is a time for new year's goals and resolutions. Today we are asking you to participate in a long range planning process for this church. I want to encourage you to be as wise as the magi: to dream great dreams, dreams as high as the stars. I want to encourage you to find that tiny but intensely bright point of light that will guide us through the darkness that is all around us until we come, like the magi, to the place to which God is leading us. Will you join me in this great adventure?