OK people, its New Year’s resolution time! How many of us have begun thinking through our self-improvement strategies for 2019? I saw a statistic from the American Medical Association that found that 50% of the American population said they articulated resolutions at the New Year. That’s a lot of resolve! New Year’s resolutions, however, are nothing new. The ritual of naming goals or making vows of self-improvement at the beginning of the year have been a part of many cultures across time.
It seems that throughout our existence we have been on this continual search for ways to try to become
And it makes total sense because, unlike my dog, who has being a dog totally down, being human is an endless challenge. Being in these bodies with these big brains and a mess of feelings is complex and complicated.
And then of course it is not just about us individually but also about us as corporate bodies as we relate to each other as a church, larger community, or as a nation. Being embodied creatures is hard. No wonder we never run out of New Year resolutions. There is always room for improvement.
All of this, was fresh in my mind when I turned to the text for today and began to wonder if this ancient story could have anything to say to help us in this challenge of being human at the turning of this New Year.
But before we go any further, let us pray, Holy One, lead us and guide us that we may join with you in the emergence not only of our truest selves but also in the emergence of the light of your presence in the world. May we see it and help to reveal it. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our lives be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Today’s scripture tells the Epiphany story.
It is an amazing story, but what I’d like to do this morning is look at the figures in this story, Herod, the Wise Ones and Joseph not so much as characters in a story long ago but as archetypes that can give us a window into understanding three distinct ways that we as humans can be in the world today. In doing so I hope we will catch a glimpse of the how God may be waiting to enter into our lives this day.
So let us dig in.
First there is Herod. At our Waban Health Worship a few weeks ago, we enacted the Christmas story for our friends. While I was writing up the script, I came to Herod, and paused for a moment trying to decide who among us to assign to the role. Finally I decided I would play Herod, because who wants to be Herod right?
Herod represents a way of being that is ruled by fear and insecurity. And what is really interesting is that when he hears the news that the Messiah is born not only is his first reaction fear, but then his fear has this contagious affect. The text tells us that “Herold was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.”
Herod’s response to this fear is to seize control. Herod’s world is one of black and white. Judgment is hard, blame comes fast, vengeance is swift and brutal. Terror and violence are a way of social control. There is no grace. There is no in-breaking of something new. There is only a zero sum game of winners and loser and he will win at whatever cost.
Now we know from extant biblical sources that Herold as an actual man was vindictive, cruel and perhaps even a sociopath. He did not only kill the innocent of Bethlehem but he killed his own wife and children when he thought they were a threat to him. He was particularly unwell and dangerous.
But Herod also reflects a distinct way that we continue to cope with the challenge of being human. Condemn Herod we may, but can we also recognize how he continues to persist in us and in our culture? Power over and control by any means necessary, continues to be a well-worn way that we humans move in the world. It is a way that we see here in this ancient text, but also in the headlines of our time. It is a way that far too often leads to profound innocent suffering and the heightening of the very fear that creates such Herods in the first place.
Then there are the Wise Ones. These move in the world in a distinctly different way than that of Herod. They are motivated by curiosity — not control; hope — not fear. They are ones that first find each other and then find the courage to travel together to cross borders and enter into new spaces.
These ancient ones were thought to be practitioners of Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia before the rise of Islam. They are old souls who calculated time not by the ticking of the clock but by the sweeping of the stars. They are scanning the skies for signs of something new and when they see it they come to investigate not with swords in hand but with gifts to give. Curiosity and hope, not control and fear, motivate their way of being in the world.
Curiosity and hope is what takes them to Bethlehem and to an encounter with the Christ child. I believe this must have been a very powerful moment of encounter for them and that they were changed by it. For scripture tells us when they do return home they do so by another way. Things were different on the far side of encounter. But we do not really know what happened when these wise ones return to their homes. We do not know if the encounter with the Christ child was so profound that it transformed not just the inner reaches of their hearts but also how they sought to live their lives out into the world. I hope it did, but I also know how hard it is to keep the effect of encounter alive once one returns to the familiarity of what is. The cultural undertow of towards conformity to the status quo is very powerful.
I think we know this as well. I think we know what it is to be swept up by curiosity and hope; to have found the courage to step into a new place whether that be far away in Nicaragua or closer to home here in Dorchester. I think we too know what it is to have an encounter that changes us profoundly.
And I think we also know the challenge of returning home again. We know how hard it can be to try to keep that experience alive with the return to routine and familiarity. I think this is one of the reason why so many of us return again and again to Nicaragua. So that we can have that powerful light of encounter relit within us when over time, inevitably, it starts to fade.
And finally, there is Joseph. Joseph is easily overlooked. He does not even have a single speaking line in the entire Christmas drama. At first pass it seems like he is just a kind of stand in, but take a deeper look and it turns out that without Joseph, Jesus would first never have been born in the first place — because very likely Mary would have been stoned to death. And without Joseph, Jesus would never have escaped Herod’s wrath – who can find a donkey in the midnight hours?
What is it about Joseph that really makes him a midwife to the divine presence in the world? What way of being human does he embody for us? It is not control. It is not even curiosity. It is something much deeper. Joseph’s way is a willingness to let go and fully step out. By that I mean that Joseph does not seek to assert his will, nor is he merely an observer to what is transpiring. Instead Joseph is willing to go beyond what he knows and then make his home there. And in doing so a remarkable thing happens; God meets Joseph in this place and works with and through Joseph so that something of God’s presence may be made manifest in the world.
Poet and philosopher, David Whyte sees this way of being human, this way that Joseph embodies, as one who is willing to partake in what he calls “the conversational nature of reality.” Whyte says that generative, creative, healing life happens on the frontier between what is us and what is not us. It is there, in that space between what is and is not yet, he says we are to dwell and it is there that we enter the conversation that not just perpetuates what is but that gives rise to what can be. In Bible study this morning we read from the book of Romans chapter twelve, “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, or whole self which is another way of putting it” It is the space in with Joseph lived, I believe.
What an interesting way to be human. What would it be like to truly comprehend that everything has something to say that we need to hear (the trees, the birds, our neighbors and people across the globe) and that we have something to say that everything that is needs to hear as well. What a fascinating way of being to embrace that it is through the blending of our voices in conversation that we can open to new arising beyond our individual imagining.
Joseph may one who shows us the way into such a Way of being, but of course there will grow to be another. This is Jesus who lived his life on the frontier. He lived on the edge of what is and what can be and in that generative space, people were healed, forgiveness was given, hunger was abaited and thirst quenched. The lost were found and the captives were set free. It was there that the kingdom of God broke forth in their very midst.
This is the one we are to follow. This is the way we are to be human. If we are to resolve anything this year perhaps it is to be not so much about how we can make ourselves better, but how we can be better conversation partners with all that is.
What could stepping out of ourselves in this way look like for us as individuals and as a church? What could it look like across our communities and for us as a nation to actually be conversant with those with whom we share this planet?
Can you imagine what that could look like? Can you imagine what could emerge? Can you feel a stirring of possibilities as of yet not even articulated?
I am grateful to be stepping out into this New Year with you, for I am convinced that we have never been as ready as we are now to be able to step out and enter in the conversation. God only knows what epiphanies are out there waiting to meet us when we do.
Thanks be to God, AMEN