A Sermon for Covenant
“The Not-So-Pious Pilgrimage”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 6, 2012
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
In his book, The Sacred Journey, Charles Foster says, “Pilgrimage involves doing something with whatever faith you have.”
Which is why I am enthralled by the Wisemen. They did something so drastic with so little evidence. These Magi had the reverent impudence to get up, pack their bags, and pilgrimage to a distant town in search of a baby. I don’t know whether to liken them to explorers, gypsies, hippies, mad scientists, or vagrants, but whatever they were like it was different, edgy, and brave. They carried in their packs some strange confidence in the stars, and what do you know, it worked! They got to where they were going, despite not knowing the destination. They found the treasure without a map, laid their own treasures down at his feet, and went back home again by a different way. It was all so magical, mystical, and mysterious, this journey of the Magi from the East. I love it.
Rewind a few steps with me and wonder: How often did those star-gazing Gentiles sit beneath the night sky, crane their necks back, and just watch? That sky—unadulterated by artificial city lights—must have been a thing to see. There is a certain magic to the night, which you may not have noticed if you spend your nights indoors with lamps and television. But if you’ve ever been camping a ways out from town, and just laid on your back and looked up long enough to be enveloped by the silent stars, then you know what I mean about the magic of the night sky.
It’s no wonder at all that ancient people were fascinated by it or that there was a whole school of people devoted to studying the movements of the heavens. What I do find bewildering is just exactly how star-gazing brought a group of grown men miles and miles from their homes all the way down to their knees before a baby in a manger.
We don’t like to think too hard about signs in the stars. It hardly seems Christian. I can’t remember the last time I brought my horoscope to church to compare notes, can you? We seldom check the constellations before we pray.
And yet the stars are how the Magi found Christ, which is all so deliciously pagan. Of course, the Magi weren’t Christians, they weren’t Jews, so you can hardly fault them for looking to the stars instead of to the Scriptures. It’s just a little puzzling to me that the star-following worked. Isn’t it weird that these star-gazers are the ones who recognize the Christ, walking miles to find him, while scores of people throughout Jerusalem have the Scriptures, but they won’t notice the Messiah for who he is when he walks right under their noses?
In this passage, Herod even calls the Scripture-experts into the room. They know enough to know the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and they tell him so. But they don’t seem to have the slightest suspicion that the Messiah has actually arrived. Not a one of them went to Bethlehem to check it out.
Now I have always envisioned the Magi riding in from the East and heading straight to the Herod’s palace; they expect that if anyone knows, he would know, so they knock on his door straight away. But that’s not how the story actually goes. They just show up in Jerusalem and start asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Apparently they approached every Tom, Dick, and Harry with the proclamation, “We have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” The Wiseman seem to expect that everyone else already knows and any passerby on the street should be able to point the way, like a visitor arriving in our city, asking “Where’s the Alamo?” But nobody does know, and the question itself is freaking everybody out. The text says “all Jerusalem” was frightened, including King Herod. Presumably, these freaks from the East were causing enough of a ruckus that even the palace got wind of it, so Herod consulted the chief priests, men who were not typically his friends, to get their advice about this so-called King of the Jews, and they tell him the child is to be born in Bethlehem. Then Herod calls for the Wisemen, secretly, mind you, as he probably doesn’t want the public knowing he’s consorting with kooks. The people might start taking the Magi seriously if they learn that King Herod is bothering to meet with them. The last thing Herod needs is more people ready to pay homage to some other king.
Herod takes these men seriously, if for no other reason than he feels threatened by the possibility of a challenging king. But as far as we know the priests answer Herod’s question, then leave the palace unaffected. Whether they scoffed at the Magi or were simply indifferent we do not know. That they did not share the Magi’s hopes and desires and diligence was clear.
I find myself wondering, where am I in this story? Am I wanderer, traversing the earth in search of God’s light? Or am I religious expert who turns up my nose at the seekers and searchers who deviate from the path I think they should follow? Or am I simply one who sleeps soundly, unaware entirely the night God breaks in and the world changes?
Our own culture is so increasingly spiritual. More and more people are seeking. It’s also true that more and more people are leaving the established church, but they aren’t leaving the church to crawl in a hole. They are leaving the church and hitting the road, searching for God. I hear Christians talk about this like it’s a bad thing, a terrible loss. All these divergent ways of seeking truth outside the church is reason for concern and alarm. But I’m not so sure.
I’m a big believer in the church. I’ve devoted myself, both personally and vocationally to her wellbeing. But all this seeking taking place outside the walls of the church is starting to excite me, to tell you the truth. Why not trust it? If it worked for Gentile Wisemen to gaze at stars, who am I to put God in a box? And as we like to say, God works in mysterious ways, and it is far more of an adventure to imagine and believe that God is at work among all people rather than to live in fear that this is a God-forsaken country. There is no God-forsaken place, which is exactly what the incarnation has to teach us, that God is here. God is among us, if we’re not so uptight as to turn up our noses at the smell of a stable or so religious as to scoff at the dreams of pilgrims who wander into our midst, telling tales of signs in the heavens.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “The church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in the world.” The church is one concentrated place to see and find and hear God, but God is everywhere. The church is a place for folks to gather as fellow wanderers and seekers who practice noticing and listening for God together, with tested practices and united hearts and sacred language and heartfelt prayers. But I don’t have to tell you that there are churches all over the place who have spoiled this sacred trust, worshipping ego or money or status instead, and so we mustn’t pass blame on those who’ve walked out to hit the road in search for something authentic. In fact, I think they should be applauded, encouraged, and prayed for.
I know Covenant to be a place of healing, where the seekers, the drifters, the discouraged and the disappointed come for hope, for rest, for kinship and companionship. And my greatest hope for this place is that we continue to be a people of radical hospitality to the wanderer. No matter how dusty their boots or how wacky their stories, how intense their faith or how severe their doubt, whether their bags are laden with anger or lined with hope, we welcome them all. We have rules, of course, about honesty and kindness, but we keep it simple.
And for those of us who have already stumbled upon this place, my greatest hope for us is this: I want us to be seekers, seekers who traverse the earth to pay God homage. Finding this place, wonderful as it is, isn’t the same thing as finding God. To show up here isn’t to have arrived. You’ve found traveling companions, that’s for sure. You’ve found a quiet place to listen. You’ve found a peaceful spot to pray and a preacher who keeps it short and sweet. But you haven’t found God, not quite. That’s a bit more personal—only you know you if you’ve spotted God, heard God’s voice, known God’s presence. Only you know if you continue to do so. It’s rarely dramatic, the sighting of God. It’s more often gentle and unobtrusive, so don’t be looking for spiritual fireworks. But do be looking. Do keep your eyes peeled. Don’t give up. Don’t settle for comfortable Sunday morning routines. Do expect God to be a real presence in your life. Do keep hope, even though you’re scared of disappointment. Show up here as often as you can, but don’t stop there, for goodness sake! Hunt for God wherever you go—in a neighbor, in a sunrise, in a stranger, in a kindness.
I hope this year makes your feet itch to walk new places. I hope you see new sights, and hear God’s voice, even if the farthest you travel is down to the end of our lot where the labyrinth so patiently awaits your silent arrival. I want us to wake up all over again to the wonder around us and find the pulsing heart of the incarnate God present in every tree, every flower, every human being. A love so pervasive it swallows us whole.
Charles Foster paraphrases Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God this way: “Get up, get out, wake up, walk on, open our eyes, ask for new eyes: you’ll see it if you are really looking for it. It’s here, it’s now, it’s on the road that I’m walking . . . Do you want to see it? Walk that road too. You’re blinded by indolence, by living in the center. It’s all happening at the edges, in the forgotten places, in the places you can’t get to by car or where your auto insurers wouldn’t let you drive, among the people you’ve put out with the trash. Reclaim the ability to be taken by surprise, and you’ll see it there, glistening so brightly you will never believe you could have missed it.”
Fast-forward with me for a moment and wonder: What on earth was it like when the Magi got back home? Were they ever the same or were they forever changed? Had it been the pilgrimage of a lifetime? What stories did they tell their children and their grandchildren? And did they wake every morning ever after with this prayer on their lips, “Thank God. Thank God. Thank God we didn’t stay put.” Amen.