New Year’s Journey
January 3, 2016 (Epiphany)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian Church
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Its morning at the Far East Astrology Center. Balthasar has been up all night with his friends Gaspar and Melchior staring at the heavens. He’s in the kitchen, coffee brewing, when his wife comes down for breakfast. “Guess what sweetie,” he says as he hands her coffee, “we saw a new star in the Eastern sky. Its different. It looks unique, special, like its announcing something important. Gaspar, Melchior and I are thinking about taking a little trip, heading west for a while, and seeing if we can figure out what’s up. Gaspar even thinks it could be a sign that a Jewish king has been born!”
“You’re thinking about doing what?!” Balthasar’s wife replies.
I’ve often wondered what possessed the wisemen to undertake their journey. Were they young men in search of adventure? Were they older men feeling stuck, at a career crossroads, and looking for something different? Had they recently retired, with time, motivation and money to follow their dreams? Was the journey something they started together or did they begin their journeys separately and meet up along the way? What did they really think when their journey ended not at a palace in a great city but at a humble house in a small town?
Matthew, of course, answers none of these questions. Some unspecified number of Magi – an ancient Persian term for a class of court advisors specializing in astrology – arrive at Herod’s court “from the east” seeking a “child who has been born king of the Jews.” Everything else is myth and legend, legend birthed of our collective fascination with these men who left home and family, safety and security to follow a star.
What leads us to leave it all behind and go? If you’re a faithful reader of National Geographic, you may have met Paul Salopek, a veteran journalist who exchanged his globe hopping ways for a very long – 21,000 miles long in fact – walk from Ethiopia to Argentina. He expects to be walking for as long as ten years – out of Africa, through the Middle East, across Asia and down the entire Pacific coast of the Americas. He’s retracing, on foot, the great human migration route in search of the stories of modern day humanity.
“If you ask,” Paul writes, “I will tell you that I have embarked on this project for many reasons: to relearn the contours of our planet at the pace of three miles an hour. To slow down. To think. To write. To render current events as some form of pilgrimage. I hope to repair certain important connections burned through by artificial speed, by inattentiveness. I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember.”
Paul walks, as the wise men walked, as Abraham walked, as the Israelites walked, seeking he’s not exactly sure what, going he’s not exactly sure where, meeting he’s not exactly sure whom, finding he’s not exactly sure what.
It was a beautiful night on Christmas Eve and I decided to walk to church instead of driving. I try to walk a few times each week – it’s the closest thing I have to a fitness plan – but Christmas Eve was different. Somewhere around the library I realized I was practically running to church. My body was tense and agitated. My destination was all consuming. Yet there was no cause for the anxiety, no need for the speed. So I stopped, took a big breath, and looked around. I realized I was in front of a house whose family I knew. So I prayed for them. Then I prayed for their neighbor. And then for the customers of the bank. And then for the guy moving furniture into an empty house on Christmas Eve. And then for the employees at Subway and the families whose loved ones laid waiting at the funeral home. My ordinary walk became a journey; the march to my destination a pilgrimage. Each step had meaning and importance. Each step brought life.
You might think that walking across continents would be boring – just like in some ways the routine of our lives can leave us in a stupor. Paul reports the opposite. “Every dawn,” he says, “I fling myself bodily into the world. At the pace of three miles per hour, when a stone can turn an ankle, when food, shelter, direction and survival depend on strangers met along the way, one must stay awake, one must be alert to both the challenges and the gifts along the way.
Inertia is powerful; so is malaise. We go from being stuck in our rut to being buried in our rut. We can’t follow a star because we can no longer look up and see them. We can no longer walk the road ahead because we’ve forgotten how to walk. Our minds, hearts and spirits close to those around us. We become afraid.
Yet God calls us outward. Its no accident that the Bible is a story of journeys. We don’t grow while nestled in our comfort zone. We don’t find God while binge watching on the couch. We are more likely to meet Jesus anew if we cross the borders and boundaries that keep us secure.
So as we stand at the beginning of a new year, I challenge you to make this year a journey. No, you don’t have to start walking to Argentina. Nor do you have to scan the heavens for a special star. But if we want to live a life truly open to God’s calling and spirit, we have to live as pilgrims and travelers, open to new experiences and new relationships, willing to cross cultures and borders, willing to feel out of place, lost and uncomfortable. Willing to put one foot in front of the next and see where it leads.