Sermon for 3 January 2021 (Christmas 2 B)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 84.1-8; Matthew 2.1-12
Title: By Another Road
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2.12).
My friends, what does it mean to be resilient?
Well, let me say to you once more, Merry Christmas! Today is the tenth day of Christmas, although we just heard the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated this week on Wednesday.
These wise and wealthy astrologers from the East make a journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, to honor the sign they had seen in the night sky.
Did any of you go out before Christmas and see the so-called Christmas Star? I could not see it, but to be honest, I did not put too much effort into it.
However, the whole thing did make me wonder. Can you imagine being outdoors each night to observe the night sky and to look for changes and unusual sights?
Of course, back in biblical times, there were no screens to stare at, so what else were people to do after the sun went down? It’s hard to imagine a life like that, isn’t it?
These professional astrologers from the Orient saw something in the night sky that sent them on a journey of discovery.
I wonder what they expected to find when they began this journey. A royal prince born in a royal palace? An heir to the throne wrapped in luxury and security? That’s why they went to Jerusalem, isn’t it? And why they went to King Herod?
But these MAGOI – that is their name in the original text – these wise men did not find what they were looking for. So what did they do? They adjusted, they adapted. They responded to the moment.
Bethlehem is only a few miles away from Jerusalem, so it did not take them long to follow the star to the exact location.
Don’t you wish you could have seen their faces when they entered the house indicated by the star and they saw Mary, a simple peasant girl, holding a simple peasant child?
The story says that they were overwhelmed with joy when the star led them to the correct place, but did their joy change into something else when they entered this peasant home and saw the simple people inside of it?
I have to wonder if they paused and had a quick conference before presenting their gifts. “Ah, Caspar, are you sure this is the right house? Balthasar, go out and look again – make sure the star hasn’t kept on moving!”
Let’s be clear, this is not at all what they were expecting. Not at all. They MUST have been surprised and shocked.
But what did they do? They adapted. They were resilient.
At every step along the way, this journey of the wise men moved in unexpected ways. And at every step along the way, they adjusted as necessary to accomplish their mission, to reach their goal.
Most clearly is this seen at the very end, when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was deceptive and crafty.
You may remember that Herod was a ruthless ruler who easily killed anyone deemed to be a threat. The irony in this text is certainly intentional: Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Emperor, even though Herod himself was born in Idumea, the neighboring province to the south.
Herod had claim to the title, but not by birth. Herod was NOT born king of the Jews. Everyone knew that Herod was a grifter, a pretender, claiming something that was not rightfully his. But as long as Rome was behind him, he was secure.
That is, unless Rome decided that there was another to whom the title should belong. Do you see his insecurity? The precariousness of his position?
The next part of this story in Matthew’s Gospel is when Joseph takes Mary and Jesus into Egypt for safety, just in time to save them all from Herod’s henchmen who bring terror and violence to the little town of Bethlehem.
To this dream warning them of Herod’s evil schemes, the wise men listened. They changed their plans and returned quickly to the East, avoiding Herod and the trap he was setting for anyone who threatened his position.
What does it mean to be resilient? It is different than toughness. Resilience is the ability to adjust, to change, to adapt in the face of difficulty, uncertainty and adversity.
To be resilient is to be both strongly rooted AND flexible.
What do you see when strong storms blow through our forests and trees get blown over? We see two different things at work: trees whose roots are not strong enough to withstand the force of the wind. Sometimes this is due to the direction of the wind. Trees may have developed resistance to strong winds from one particular direction, but when the wind changes, when gales blow from an unusual direction, the tree is not prepared and its weak roots on one side lose the struggle and the tree is toppled. This is common with our white pines that are blown over by storms.
The other common problem is when trees are too stiff and rigid, such as oaks and maples. These usually have good, strong roots, but branches and stems may get blown off of the trunk when they snap in the strong winds. Rigidness and inflexibility often lead to collapse and significant damage.
By contrast, the most resilient trees marry both of these qualities into one! They have strong roots on every side, plus the flexibility to bend in the wind without breaking.
Tetsugen is the name of a famous Zen master in Japan who exemplified resilience. He had a dream to translate and print thousands of copies of the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese. He lived in the Seventeenth Century, and until that time the sutras of the Buddha were only available in Chinese, so few people in Japan could read them.
Tetsugen traveled all over Japan raising money for his project. After ten long years, he collected enough funds to begin his work. But just then, the river Uji flooded and thousands were left without food or shelter. Tetsugen spent all of the money collected for his cherished project on these people in need.
Then he started again. After a number of years, he was again able to collect the necessary funds. But soon an epidemic spread throughout Japan and he gave the money away to help those who suffered.
Once again he began his travels to raise the funds to accomplish his lifelong dream. Twenty years later, his dream came true and the Buddhist scriptures were available to many in their native Japanese language.
The printing block that produced this first edition of the sutras in Japanese is still on display at the Obaku Monastery in Kyoto. And it is said that Tetsugen produced three editions of the scriptures in total: the first two are invisible and are considered far superior than the visible one (Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight, p.59-60).
Tetsugen was resilient. He understood his identity and his mission. This strong foundation allowed him to adjust, to respond with compassion to those suffering around him, and also to persevere until his mission was complete.
To strengthen our foundation: that is a key motivation for our Bible reading project this winter, starting next Sunday. I hope that every Saint Mary’s household will join us in this effort to return to the basics of what it means to be Christian.
Our identity as Christians revolves and orbits around the story of the Messiah, Christ the Lord, born in Bethlehem among the people of Israel, and yet also revealed to the Gentiles, to all the peoples of the world.
THIS story is the framework which allows us make sense of our experiences of life. And yet, it is easy to forget parts of it, or to form false assumptions about the story of Christ based on the culture around us.
So we return, again and again, to the foundations to remember and to strengthen our understanding of who we are and how we fit into the story of God’s dream for the earth.
Just like the healthy tree, these strong roots shape our identity and our mission. And by God’s grace, we can also be flexible and adaptable, responding to the changing nature of life.
That great Twentieth Century scholar of Church History, Jaroslav Pelikan, once made this remarkably astute observation: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he explained, while “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” REPEAT
Traditionalism is inflexible, stiff, rigid, demanding. It may have strong roots, but it is likely to collapse when the inevitable storms of change blow against it.
But a living tradition that is green and vibrant and healthy – THAT is the image of the ideal tree that is rooted deeply AND also flexible and able to adapt.
What does it mean to be resilient? The question that matters even more is this: are we resilient?
I certainly think so, although we ought never to take this for granted.
So let us continue to dig our roots down deep in the way of Christ, as we also learn from Christ how to adapt and change and respond to the needs around us.
May it be so. Amen.