Click here for the video: Homage
There was a picture this week, I don’t know if you saw it, from the swearing in of the 116th Congress of the United States. In the picture, laid out and labeled on a table were some of the more than a dozen books upon which Representatives and Senators alike were sworn into their respective offices. Given that the religious makeup of the Congress is still 90% self-identified Christian, there was the Bible. But not just one bible. There was an Orthodox bible, a Catholic bible, and a Protestant bible. One representative from Pennsylvania was sworn in on the bible that belonged to her uncle, who worked as a priest for 53 years. But there were other holy books as well. There was also a copy of the Quaran that had been Thomas Jefferson’s, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist Sutra, Jewish Torah and Tanakh, and the Book of Mormon. Others chose to be sworn in on a copy of the U.S. Constitution and newly elected Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema was sworn in on an Arizona law book. As others have observed, it is the perfect representation of the Latin phrase that graces our currency, E Pluribus Unum, out of many one. It is also an illustration of what the gospel writer Matthew is trying to tell us in our reading this morning about the Magi who come seeking Jesus. Only they don’t really know that it’s Jesus they are seeking, per se.
Today is known as the Epiphany of the Lord. At the conclusion of the traditional twelve days of Christmas that begin on Christmas Day, Christians around the world celebrate the arrival of these mysterious visitors from the East described in Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, in many places it’s Epiphany, and not Christmas, that is set aside as a day for giving gifts in recognition of the gifts brought to the Christ child. It’s nice to be able to pull this story about Jesus’ birth away from the manger and Nativity scenes to give it its own hearing. One that isn’t muddled by shepherds and heavenly hosts, but speaks rather of visions and dreams and warnings. Instead of the pastoral picture painted by Luke, Matthew speaks of political intrigue and begins to give us a sense of the danger that this baby faces almost from his birth. If Christmas is a season in which we rejoice in the good news of God with us, born to us in Jesus, then Epiphany is a season in which we are surprised and maybe even caught off guard to discover just how expansive that good news is, and what such a birth has to show us about who it is for.
I can’t give you the latest scholarship on which gospel preceded the other, Matthew or Luke, but in reading this account of the Magi seeking and finding Jesus it’s almost as if the gospel writer got a hold of an early draft of what Luke was working on, saw the story about shepherds being invited to the birth of Christ, and thought, “hold my beer.” What I mean is that when we read about the shepherds in Luke, he’s using people who were marginal at best to anyone listening to the story. Shepherds were better with sheep than they were with people. People didn’t trust them because they moved from place to place, field to field as their flocks grazed. And yet, that is who God chose to reveal the good news of great joy for all the people. But Matthew goes one step further and talks about wise men, Magi, from the east who come to see the child. These aren’t just people who live as outcasts on the margins of that particular culture, they are outside of it altogether; gentiles, foreigners. To be sure there were plenty of faithful foreigners who made up the Jewish diaspora who could have come from the east seeking the baby. These stargazers, however, are foreigners of an entirely different faith. They are astrologers looking for signs in the stars and interpreting dreams. They aren’t just socially other, they are entirely other. Their religious practice would have been considered an abomination to faithful followers of the law. So it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that their appearance in Jerusalem would have the leadership there so shook. People have gone to great pains to explain the star these wise men followed as some unique astrophysical event, a supernova, or comet, or some equally impressive display in the night sky. But if that were the case then surely King Herod and all of Jerusalem would have noticed it too. But they didn’t. Because they weren’t looking for it. It took these outsiders from another country to cross their border and show them something they couldn’t see for themselves. As is often the case, it is almost impossible for us to see our own blind spots. We cannot see what we do not know. And sometimes we cannot see because of what we do know- or think we know. Sometimes we cannot see because what we are being shown doesn’t align with what we have come to value.
Herod valued power, and the privilege that such power provided. He was the closest thing that there was to a “King of the Jews.” His was power by proxy, only what Rome gave him. But he held onto it with an iron grip, even going so far as to have several family members killed, including his own son, to eliminate any potential rival. So, all that Herod could see when these outsiders came to his court with a story about a star signaling the birth of the “King of the Jews” was a potential contender for his power. His talk of paying homage himself was just a cosmetic lie told to conceal his darker intent. The Magi valued what the stars could show them and what they saw filled them with awe and wonder, so they came to pay homage. Herod valued his own sense of importance and what he saw filled him with dread and paranoia, so he began to formulate a plot that would help him snuff it out.
Herod says that he too wants to pay homage and asks these wise men to tell him where to find the child so that he can do just that. But here’s how we know that is a lie, even before we read about the bloody atrocity that will be carried out shortly in Herod’s name. To pay homage requires a measure of humility, one that acknowledges the value of something outside of ourselves, someone other than us. Homage is what we do when we recognize someone or something as truly remarkable and want to honor their value and worth. Herod’s values were too centered on himself to ever allow him to humble himself in such a way.
Homage is only possible when we open ourselves to seeing what we may not already know, when we approach our own blind spots with a measure of humility. To do so also means that we have to be willing to consider what someone outside our normal circles and echo chambers might have to say and show us. It means suspending judgement over the fact that they don’t appear to belong to our particular tribe or team, clan our county, and acknowledge that such a fact may actually be their greatest gift- beyond gold, frankincense or myrrh. Because the fact is that all kinds of people are out their seeking Jesus without knowing that what they are in fact seeking is what God has to offer all of us in Jesus. And even if they don’t happen to call themselves ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean that they can’t point our way toward him.
I heard a story this week about the online shoe company Zappos. Zappos considers its customer service to be one of its highest values. Where other companies might encourage their phone representatives to keep calls as short as possible to maximize volume, Zappos does the opposite. The way I heard it told, the current record for the longest customer service call is something like 7-8 hours. And one story goes that a woman called into the company the day after her mother died. In the midst of her grief she began going through her mother’s things a found multiple boxes of unopened shoes from Zappos at the back of her closet. She said she knew that it was past the time when she would normally send them back, but wanted to know if something could be done. The rep on the phone with her listened and told her how sorry she was for this woman’s loss. Then she told her they would send out a large empty box with a shipping label. She could put the shoes in it and send them back, no problem. Which was nice. The next day something unexpected happened. A large flower arrangement arrived at the woman’s house- from Zappos.
The truth is that whether they know it or not, there are all kinds of unlikely people from all manner of religious and non-religious backgrounds pointing the way to Jesus all the time- in small acts of love and hospitality, in gestures of peace and reconciliation. What the light of Epiphany reveals is that sometimes the best gifts are the ones we never see coming. All the people that we hold at arm’s length, the ones that don’t look like us, or who come from somewhere else- each and every one of them has something to offer that is a reflection of the one in who image we are made. Our ability to receive the gifts that they, and by extension that God has to offer us through them is largely a function of what we value. We can value what we think we already know and consider settled, or we can offer this simple prayer, one that values the one who is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine. It may be the simplest, but most profound prayer we can offer, “show me.” Show me what I cannot see, what I need to see. Show me, and point the way to Jesus, that we may pay him homage.