January 4, 2015
I’ve been watching the “Sacred Journey” series on PBS. Bruce Feiler follows along with Americans as they make pilgrimages to holy places in their faith traditions. The first night, American war veterans went to Lourdes, in France, the next one was Buddhist pilgrims on a trek through 80 temples on a Japanese Island. Last week, I watched American Muslims make their Hajj to Mecca, and followers of Paramahansa Yogananda join Indians in the biggest Hindi festival of a twelve-year cycle on the Ganges River. As I watched this week, I was living with the story of the Magi trekking from the East to Bethlehem to lay treasures before the new baby, Jesus. Suddenly this story, so familiar that you barely hear the details any longer sprang to life for me. A pilgrimage! Their journey was a pilgrimage, a special kind of travel in which one puts one’s body and soul in motion as a work of faith and commitment to learning something new, and bringing it back with you.
A pilgrimage is hard. It is a big commitment and a big risk. It is often expensive to get where you’re going, even if it doesn’t involve a lot of money, there is the time it takes to put every other commitment aside and devote yourself entirely to the journey you have undertaken. Travel is long, beds are not your own, food is foreign, weather is unpredictable, strangers surround you. But all those deprivations fall away in importance as you experience your heart open in new ways, as you share your life and faith with others who have made the same commitment, as the faith you have found to be more and more intellectual and pale becomes something else. Faith takes on new strength and new muscles as it experiences new challenges on the journey. When you return from a pilgrimage, you find that your old comfort is gone, and your new excitement needs to be integrated into the life you left behind.
These “Wise Men” were actually gypsy fortune-tellers – they were not really kings. They were the kinds of people that faithful Jews would have stayed far away from, as reading the stars and other signs to determine the future were strictly forbidden in Judaism. What were they seeking, I wonder? What was it that they thought was about to happen, and what made it so important that they would set out on year’s long trek to find it and bow down before it? The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us that detail, but he is quick to show us the shock and worry of the religious and political establishment when they suddenly show up, asking where this new King was to be found. You know that the story we don’t hear this morning is the one in which babies die to satisfy the fear and political ambitions of a tyrant. The story of the Magi confirms for us that the birth of this new baby is not just for those who knew the prophecies and were part of the in-crowd of the Jewish tradition. These weird visitors tell us that God came in person for the whole world. You don’t have to be educated into the mysteries of the proper faith to be invited to meet God. Your longing to know more is enough to bring you as a pilgrim to the feet of Jesus.
In watching the pilgrims on their sacred journeys in the series, I am again reminded of the gift that God gives us in Jesus. I would not be so bold as to say that those who seek God on other paths will not find God. Perhaps they will in their own way, and through the hard work that is required to be faithful enough and dedicated enough to their practices. What I find so wonderful and amazing about the story of God come to us in Jesus, is that through our striving to know more and to be more faithful, we find a God who came to us first. We find a God who became us, so that we will always know that being human is important and precious. We don’t have to please God in order to be in relationship to God. God loved us first. We don’t have to crawl to some shrine to be blessed and forgiven; God lifted the power of sin to separate us from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are freed from all obligation to find our own salvation through diligence and discipline, and we are able to live out of the response to God’s great grace and love for us. That means that we can use the power of God’s love for us to be loving, and use the power of our forgiveness to be more forgiving. Our pilgrimages begin in the freedom of God’s grace to us, serving to remind us that despite our own worry that we are not worthy of God’s love, we have been loved beyond understanding. All our disciplines start with the understanding that we want to be more like the God who sought us first.
The story of the Magi is such a wonderful way to begin a New Year, I think. This story of pilgrimage, of long trek by the least expected to answer their cosmic questions, of bearing gifts of sacrifice out of respect and honor, is a good way for us to think about our own journey in the year ahead. What do you seek in the coming days; healing, knowledge, new direction, peace, comfort? What do we seek in our ministry together; reconciliation, inspiration, new life, better relationships, new commitment? What will we be willing and able to lay aside for the pilgrimage ahead of us that leads to new beginnings? What do we want to leave behind to step forward? What are the gifts we bring to honor the King who bears all our hopes and dreams for the days and years ahead? Can we think of ourselves as pilgrims, mounting our camels to set forth on a trek that leads somewhere into the future that calls us so powerfully that we cannot say “No?” Can we trust that wherever we are headed brings us the blessings we crave, even though we are not always sure what those blessings will be? Thanks be to God who loves us into God’s own dreams for us, and promises to walk with us always. Amen.