Not the end of the story

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:38-48.

“Love your enemies.”  I remember the first time I ever preached on this, I was in my first year of college, and I commented in my sermon that I didn’t really feel I had any enemies.  One of the people in the congregation told me that if I got ordained that would be sure to change!

Cynicism about the church aside, this is a hard saying from Jesus.  But if we are going to take seriously the instruction to love our enemies, it would help to know what “love” means here.

The way we usually use the word “love,” it mostly describes our feelings; emotional bonds or longings or likes from the sublime to the ridiculous; affection, fondness, or enthusiasm.

If we hear Christ’s words with that sort of meaning in mind, it can seem quite inhuman.  Which of us is going to have those sorts of feelings for our enemies?  And if we recognise that we don’t, how could we possibly manufacture them?

But as used in the New Testament, in particular, love has more to do with action and responsibility, and less to do with our emotions or liking for someone.  To love is to do what you can to provide for the well-being of another whether you like that person or not.  In his famous passage describing love, Paul doesn’t say anything about our emotions, only that love is patient and kind, without jealousy or boasting, without arrogance or rudeness, doesn’t insist on having its own way, doesn’t rejoice at wrong but rather in the right, and endures everything.

An act of love might be motivated by delight in someone or gratitude for something they have done or any of those sorts of positive human feelings; or an act of love might be done despite exhaustion, depression, fear, aversion or anger; it may be done simply as an act of obedience to God; it may be done as a prayer and an expression of faith and hope that the truth about the people involved is bigger than the lack of positive emotion.

I think, actually, that aspect of faith and hope is really important.  It allows us to take our own current emotions – whatever they are – and say that they’re not the end of the story.  They’re not the final word and they don’t define either me or the person about whom I have those feelings, but both of us are caught up in a bigger reality, both of us beholden to a creator who animates us, both of us bound together in a common human struggle to fulfil that act of creation.

Thomas Merton put it like this: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.  That is not our business and, in fact, is nobody’s business.  What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself with render both ourselves and our neighbours worthy.”

I have a friend who is a Buddhist monk, who works as a prison chaplain.  He told me once that one of the things he does to teach the prisoners is to get them to think about where their food comes from.  When he first asks, he says, they say something like, “the kitchen.”  But as he presses them to think about it, they realise that they have a meal in front of them only because of a huge complex human organisation of farmers and manufacturers and drivers and retailers and cooks… the simple act of eating connects each prisoner to the rest of humanity in a deep and profound way.

This simple exercise of being aware of where our food comes from, he tells me, is often a first step to helping these deeply alienated men realise that we are all profoundly interconnected and interdependent.  None of us could live our lives without the help of countless others near and far, present and past… friend and enemy.  Everything we have, not just material things, but our words, our ideas, our skills, our faith, the music and stories which give us courage, wisdom and delight; everything we have has been given to us by others.  We are each part of a greater whole.

That understanding, my friend tells me, can be a first step to rehabilitation and the recovery of broken souls in prison.

But it is a wisdom not just for those in prison.  We are each – you and me, our families and friends, and, yes, even our enemies – part of a greater whole in which we participate.  We can no more remove ourselves from that, than pigs can fly.

For the Christian, it goes deeper than seeing what we each have in common as human beings.  We are called to see each human being – no matter how alienating, threatening or confronting – as presenting to us the image of God.  St. John Chrysostom – who didn’t coddle his congregation! – told them bluntly that “If you fail to recognise Christ in the beggar outside the church door, you will not find Christ in the chalice.”

We don’t like this, of course.  We want those who are in some way a problem for us to go away, get lost; we’ve bought into the idea that we can separate good and evil people, and all we need to do is remove the evil people from our midst, and we can have a (relative) paradise.

It’s an illusion that’s good for the ego, but it’s simply not true.  Solzhenitsyn – longtime inhabitant of the Gulag – wrote of his perception of the truth:

“If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

We are saved, Solzhenitsyn saw, and Jesus would agree, not by the killing or removal of our enemies, but by their conversion and ours.  This, too, requires a sense from us that whatever we feel about someone right now, it’s not the end of the story.  Both they and we will go on from this point, and, we trust, change and grow; and so might our relationship.

There are, I think, two ways to engage with this instruction to love our enemies.  We can try to make a mental list of who our enemies are, and then – if not do something concrete for them – at least make sure that we are not actively doing anything to harm them.  That is hard enough.

But more than that, we can ask ourselves, whom in our lives are we not loving?  And that will show us whom we are treating as enemies, even if we don’t want to admit it to ourselves.

But those are precisely those relationships which we need to bring to God, in faith and hope that our current reality is not the end of the story.  And we need to be open to whatever God might ask of us, in being part of the next chapter.

Love the stranger

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Deuteronomy 10:12-22.

One of the things that Christians have often wrestled with is how we deal with the fact that our Scriptures contain books of laws and commandments which were given by God to the Jewish people; and it’s not always obvious or straightforward to work out how those laws or commandments relate to our lives as Christians.

Some things we decided fairly quickly didn’t apply to us; food restrictions, keeping the Sabbath, the requirements for animal sacrifice, and so forth, we can see being abandoned even in the New Testament.  But if there’s one thing we’ve held onto as absolutely central to Christianity, it’s that human beings have a dual obligation, to love God and love one another.  Jesus himself affirmed this as the principle on which everything else hangs.

So when we come to a passage like today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we need to read carefully; is it dealing with matters of loving God, or loving everyone else?  Listen again to what Moses had to say: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”

“You shall also love the stranger.”

We are commanded, we know, to love our neighbours as ourselves.  This reading fleshes that out a bit further; you shall also love the stranger.  It’s not that the stranger is not your neighbour, but that he is a particular category of neighbour; someone who is in some way an outsider to the community; someone who experiences a degree of isolation; someone who is socially vulnerable.

This is, by the way, part of why the movement for social justice is an unavoidable part of authentic Christian life.  Because it’s by working for social justice that we seek to create a society in which those neighbours who are in some way vulnerable have a fair go in life; in terms of access to financial security, opportunities to participate in their community to the full, and opportunities to fulfil their God-given potential.  And we’ve seen this historically in the Christian push to abolish slavery, to establish adequate welfare for those in need, and to provide education to even the poorest in society.

Social justice isn’t optional for us.  It’s part of our very DNA as Christians.  Love the stranger; make sure vulnerability doesn’t turn into suffering.

Let me unpack a specific example for you this morning; and that is the question of how we treat refugees in Australia.

To be clear, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her home because of war or persecution, and who seeks protection in another country.  By international convention, to which Australia is a party, such a person has a right to protection in another country.

Let me say that again; by international law, a refugee has a legal right to protection in Australia.

But what actually happens to many refugees here is sickening.  It’s not easy to get permission to visit detention centres and I never have; so I rely for my information on accounts written by other people.  The points that follow I’ve taken from a public submission to an Australian senate inquiry, and if you ask me afterwards I can provide you with a link to more information.*

  • Isolation and lack of communication are constant realities. I’ve already mentioned that it’s difficult to get permission to visit; mail deliveries might not happen for up to a month at a time; public phones don’t exist in the centres and even when a refugee might be allowed to leave to use one, it is too expensive for them to make calls; equipment for electronic communication is in disrepair, very slow and requires that the refugee know how to use it and be literate in English.
  • There is a lack of medical care. Illnesses are left untreated.  Pain medication is not given.  Injuries are left to heal, or not.  There are stories of people going blind for want of basic treatment of an eye infection.  One such mother had two young children to care for; children whose smiles she will never see again.  Not only is mental health treatment completely inadequate, but the conditions in which people are kept create and compound existing mental health issues.
  • Fresh water supply is not consistent, and in Nauru has been reported to only be available for two hours a day; in that time refugees must see to their drinking and washing needs. Conditions are often unsanitary.
  • Normal family life is disrupted and the ability of parents to care for their children is compromised.
  • There is lack of legal assistance, or of access to information exercise their legal rights. Interviews determining someone’s future are often held without any legal advisors present.

And people are left in this situation, in limbo, for years on end, with no idea of whether or when they might be able to leave.

That’s just a start.  That’s the beginning of painting a picture for you of what we are doing to these people; people who, let us not forget, have a legal right to our protection.

It’s hardly loving the stranger, is it?

I would go so far as to say this; I have sometimes heard people voice concerns that Australia is losing its character as a Christian nation.  That as religious education has been removed from schools, as same-sex marriage is on the horizon, and so forth, we are becoming a nation detached from our religious heritage.

To those people I would say this: as long as we keep a single refugee locked up in what amounts to a concentration camp, we have no right to any credible claim to being a Christian nation.  Maybe we ought to worry less about whether children in the local primary school are hearing the story of Adam and Eve, and worry more about whether children who have already been traumatised and displaced have any hope for a better tomorrow under Australia’s sun.

I know I stated that strongly, and that some of you might find that confronting.  But sometimes we need to hear things which we find confronting.

We can do better than this.  Our God commands us to actually love the strangers who seek our protection.  And I put it to you this morning that we have a Christian obligation to seek justice and mercy for them.

https://refugeeaction.org/information/inside-the-detention-centres/submission-to-2006-migration_amendment-inquiry/

Uneasy reflection

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Genesis 3:1-8

Well, there it is.  Today’s reading from Genesis is one of those parts of Scripture which has come to grip imaginations in powerful ways ever since it was written.  When we want to know who we really are, it holds up an uneasy reflection which prompts more thoughtful questions than easy answers; or at least, I think it should.

What I noticed as I read it for today was that one of the reasons Eve was tempted, was that she saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”  And I thought that was interesting, because it suggests that somehow Eve, in that primitive, pre-fallen state, had a sense of herself as being unwise.

And I wonder why that was?  Presumably, in the perfect life of the garden, there wasn’t any task for her to do for which she felt she lacked the knowledge or skill.  I also presume that in that perfect garden, there was nothing with which she felt discontented, or that she wanted to improve.

I’m reminded a bit of the idea of a human hierarchy of needs; that human beings have needs, ranging from the most basic (physiological needs for food, rest, safety and so forth), to the more complex (needs for belonging, love and esteem), through to the need for what the psychologists call “self-actualisation;” the ability to realise one’s full potential, in creativity, in enlightenment, in knowledge, and so forth.

In the garden Eve didn’t have any unmet needs, except perhaps this one; did a perfect world leave her any scope for self-actualisation?  Or is that need, that drive to realise our potential, something we only have now, after the fall, when we are aware of how far we are from how we were created to be?  I’m not sure.

But what it suggests to me, as I ponder what that might mean for us today, is that the drive to realise our potential is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, it can lead us to seek God’s will for our lives, pushing ourselves to fulfil what God created us for and calls us to; and that is a good thing!

On the other hand it might make something which isn’t actually right for me, look like a good idea; or it might make me restless and unreliable during the part of growing which is more hard work than instant reward.  Not every opportunity is going to be the right thing at the right time.

And so that’s the question I’m left with, as I look at my own decisions to make: if I do this or that, whom does it really serve?  Is it part of the bigger picture of what God’s doing in the world, or is it just appealing to my own desire to be bigger than I am right now?  Lest, desiring to become wise, I become a fool.

But we ought to be wise in Christ.

The Lord be with you.

Work in progress

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references are is 1 Corinthians 2:1-13.

I wonder if you’ve ever had a moment where it seemed that the whole world changed?  I’ve heard people talk like that about things like learning about President Kennedy being shot, or learning about 9/11.  More personal traumas, too, can change our lives in an instant; the car crash that leaves someone never the same, for example.

Those are negative examples, and maybe it’s easier to think of those.  Maybe positive examples might be like the moment you look at someone and realise that this is the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.  Or the moment you learn that you’re going to be a parent.  Or the moment when you realise you are so inspired by some cause that you’re willing to spend the rest of your life committed to it.  Maybe it’s being offered the job that comes to define how you look at the world for the rest of your life.

The reason I’m thinking about that this morning, though, is that I suspect Paul’s own life-shattering moment shaped what we heard from his letter to the Corinthians this morning.  We know the story from Acts, of course; the road to Damascus, and the light, and the voice, and the scales falling from his eyes some time later… and Paul was never the same again.

And he argues here with the Corinthians that this sort of experience – a life changing encounter with the power of God – is what our faith rests on.  Not, he says, in lofty words or wisdom.  In Christ, argues Paul, something radically new has taken place; and not only will Paul never be the same again but neither will anything else.  If only we can see it.

I worry sometimes whether that leads us to expect that the power of God will always be a flashy or dramatic thing.  That we might look around and see an absence of startling miracles and think that that means God’s not up to much here.  I don’t actually believe that.

I remember the first time I went to visit the Community of the Holy Name.  I’d gone to stay for three days on retreat, and in the evening of the first night, while all the nuns headed to bed and the house was silent, it seemed to me that somehow it was glowing.  Not the flashy fireworks of charismatic revival, but a quiet golden glow of the Spirit gently doing His thing in and amongst all the very ordinary moments of an ordinary day.

I think for most of us the power of God is more like that.  Quiet and patient and often unremarked.  But that doesn’t make it less real or life-changing or important.

So, Paul argues that the power of God has come into our experience in ways that leave us forever changed.  We have been given a glimpse, in our own lives, of what God is up to and what all of creation is heading towards, in its final fulfilment of the purposes of God.  That’s what Paul is talking about as the things that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived; what God has in store for us at the end of the age, when God will remake the heavens and the earth and even each of us; make all things new, and as they should be, without sin or flaw or error.

That’s what the power of the Spirit at work in us reveals to us; and that – in Paul’s logic – is what our faith rests on.  It’s what our love of God rests on.

But there’s an interesting thing here because Paul has this quote, in the middle of this passage, where he says “It is written…”

it is written,
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him.’

but the thing is, we don’t know where he was getting that from.  It’s not written in any document we still have.

So there are two possibilities.  Either Paul is quoting a source we no longer have, or he’s thinking of a source we do have, but getting it a bit wrong, either accidentally, or intentionally changing the wording slightly.

And that second possibility is really quite interesting, because while we don’t have an exact match for this quote anywhere, what we do have is partial matches in several places in the Old Testament.  But where Paul has put “what God has prepared for those who love him,” in the Old Testament texts we read things like, “those who wait for him,” or “those who choose him,” or “those who are loyal to him.”

And the fact that Paul has taken those ideas, but summed them up as “those who love God” gives us some insight into what Paul thought it meant to love God.

If you love God, you choose God.  You worship Him, learn from Him, and commit to being the kind of person He wants you to be.

If you love God, you are loyal to God.  You’re steadfast.  You don’t get bored and drift away.  You don’t decide to check out what other competing deities might have to offer.  You have a sense of obligation to this relationship.

If you love God, you wait for God.  You don’t demand everything right now.  You don’t get anxious or frustrated when you don’t have the answers (that tends to be my weakness, by the way).  You’re able to be confident when life seems messy and confusing because you know – you know – that something better is coming, as surely as tomorrow’s sunrise.

That’s what Paul implies with what I suspect is a very careful and intentional misquote here.  He sums up these common Old Testament themes of those who choose God, who are loyal to God, who wait for God… by saying that they are those who love God.  This is what it means to love God.  This is what it looks like and feels like.

It’s a very significant use of words on his part.

This is Paul’s way of interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual (that’s supposed to be us, by the way).  He’s saying that our personal experience of God’s power in our lives changes us, gives us a glimpse into eternity, and motivates us to show our love for God in our commitment, our loyalty, and our patience.  I’m certainly not perfect at that yet.  I’m a spiritual work in progress.  But if I can see my own improvement in these things, I can be confident that it is truly the Holy Spirit at work in me.

And the same is true for each of you.

The Lord be with you.

St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr

This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-22.

I find the story of St. Agnes quite troubling.  While some of the details are hazy, it seems clear that she was a young woman – maybe twelve or thirteen years old – in a Christian family, while Christianity was still illegal in Rome.  Denounced to the authorities, probably by a young man frustrated at her refusal of marriage, she was subjected to various indignities and eventual martyrdom.

There are lots of aspects of that story that we could explore, but the one which caught my attention was the idea that for Agnes, as for so many of the early martyrs, this was a contest about who was in control.  Who gets to decide what I do, and what happens to my body?  (In particular, who gets to decide with whom I have sex?)

A third-century Roman woman might seem like an unlikely poster girl for bodily autonomy, but you could read Agnes’ absolute refusal to bow to personal or state pressure in that light.  Of course, she was killed for it.

Today’s gospel reading hints at similar tensions in the Christian experience.  “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”  It’s an expression that conveys a great deal of vulnerability.  When the sheep and the wolf eye one another, it’s not usually the sheep who experiences control of the situation.

And yet I have a hunch – formed over many years of pastoral conversations – that we don’t like to think about that very much.  We like to frame our understanding of the world as if we are n control of our lives.

But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control.  God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.

And so we have a tension between taking advantage of the scope we do have, and making the most of it; and accepting the constraints which shape our lives.  The Christian martyrs have heightened that tension in an incredibly pointed way; making choices which showed how brutal and how extreme the forces which control our lives can be.  And in doing so, making the most incredibly powerful challenge to those forces, by saying that they are not ultimately the most important thing.  Some things are worth dying for.

Here’s the thing; Agnes, in her refusal to budge on her commitment to Christ, unmasked the wolfish brutality of her society.  In surrendering even her life to it, she refused to compromise with it in any way; and the extraordinary thing about that is the way her death became a catalyst for change.  Even heartless Pagan Rome, which had seen so many brutal deaths, began to sit up and ask if this was really necessary.  It was a turning point in the persecutions.

But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us.  I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control.  We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place.  We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.

This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way.  Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances i about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency.  (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there).  And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.

And that’s before we even touch on questions of mental illness or other, less tangible, constraints on our lives.

But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to preserve the illusion of being in control, is that it means that the constraints on our lives go unnamed, unacknowledged.  The wolves, if you like, are allowed to stay camouflaged.

How many people don’t talk about poverty, because they are ashamed to admit that they don’t have economic freedom?  How many people don’t talk about addiction, because they are ashamed to admit that a substance or an activity has come to rule their minds?  How many people don’t talk about family situations in which they feel trapped, because they are ashamed to admit that all is not well?

And yet wouldn’t there be a freedom, even a reclaiming of power, if we could collectively look those wolves in the eye and acknowledge them?

And if there is any sin in any of these things, wouldn’t being able to be honest with ourselves about what is going on, be the first step to setting it right?  Or if there is any injustice, any oppression, at work in what we experience, isn’t being able to be honest about that, the first step to being able to challenge it?

What I’m suggesting is that the illusion of being in control of our lives can get in the way of our own best interests.  It can get in the way of our psychological well being.  It can get in the way of our social well being.  It can get in the way of our moral well being.  And it can get in the way of our ability to recognise those things which are wrong, and work to put them right.

If Agnes had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things.  It might not have been, on paper, a bad outcome; and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it.

But by refusing to do that, by looking the wolf in the eye and not flinching, she refused to compromise who she was.  Maybe one of the things she offers us as her legacy, is the courage to accept our own vulnerability, and to take a fearless inventory of the powers which shape our lives, knowing that none of them have the final word.

 

Steadfast love

We did something a bit different instead of a straight sermon this morning.  I wanted to reflect on the part of Psalm 40:10 which says “I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”

Rather than me spending ten minutes or so telling the congregation why sharing their experiences of God’s love is a good thing to do, I decided to engage in a bit of experiential learning by getting them to share those experiences in the service.  As people spoke, I wrote what they had to say on butcher’s paper, which we placed on the altar for the Great Thanksgiving.  Now, the pieces of paper are on display in the narthex for further reflection and discussion.

Here’s the list of what came out as we talked:

  • Accidents avoided (safety)
  • Answered prayer
  • A place to live (divine providence)
  • Nature (especially birdsong, and sunrises and sunsets)
  • Music and singing
  • A supportive community in the parish
  • Family togetherness
  • Children
  • The joy of loving
  • Dependable presence – an awareness of God – (especially in meditation) – a sense of immanence
  • Strength when feeling low
  • Blessings coming out of life’s difficulties
  • Guidance in understanding
  • Right paths in life (being able to come back after a wrong path)
  • Guidance and blessings
  • Comfort in grief
  • Ongoing forgiveness

By the time we’d got all of that on paper, we were really just getting warmed up!  But I didn’t want to let it go for much longer than a sermon typically would.

But what an awesome God we have, that we should have all these things for which to give thanks and praise together!

Homage

This is a sermon for the feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references are is Matthew 2:1-12.

It’s the last finishing touch on the Christmas story; some time after Jesus was born, wise men from the east arrive “to pay him homage.”  Homage is a funny word; we don’t hear it often in everyday life, but here it means something like, the wise men came to pay their respects.

But who were they?  Why did they come?  And what does this last detail of Jesus’ infancy suggest to us for our lives?

Let’s start here.  The wise men weren’t kings, despite all the pop culture references which paint them that way.  The word used to describe them, magos, (from which we get magi) referred to priests of a pagan Persian religion, educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astronomy (which at that time was more what today we would call astrology), and the occult.  They were also widely noted for their honesty and integrity.  Some of the magi were court functionaries of the Parthian Empire, powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.  It’s pretty safe to say that they weren’t in the habit of dropping in on random peasant children in the Roman Empire, their political enemies, with whom they were often at war.

So why come?  It’s hard to be sure exactly what their motivations were.  We know that these men had a role in deciding who would rule their Empire.  We know that their Empire was unstable and that the leadership of it was in dispute at about this time.  We also know that this culture had had contact with Jews in exile for a bit more than five hundred years, and that Persian scholars of religion and history would be aware of Jewish ideas and expectations around a messiah.

Did they come looking for a king, not for the Jews but for themselves?  Were they trying to figure out whether this baby was the real deal, before considering making an offer?  Were the gifts not just a mark of respect, but a down payment intended to encourage Mary and Joseph to think about the life Jesus might have in a foreign court, (not unlike his distant relative, the famous Queen Esther)?  (And then, of course, there’s the matter of the star.  What did these astrologers make of that?)

Lots of questions and no real answers in the text.  And then they exit – not the same way they came – and as far as we know, that is that.  They don’t return, and when Mary and Joseph do go into exile, it’s Egypt and not Persia that they flee to.  Apparently neither the magi, nor the holy family, saw in each other the answer to their particular needs.

But while the magi were in the house, they knelt down and paid Jesus homage.  And that’s the part of the story that I want to reflect on, for what it might say to us.

While the magi were on their knees, peering at the infant before them, trying to work out where he fit in their understanding of the world, there would have been a deeper question pulsing behind it all.  What are we looking for?  What did we come all this way hoping to find?

And it’s the question for all of us who take up religion as anything more than a casual passing fancy.  What are we looking for?  What have we come all this way – through the waters of baptism and into the funny, quirky, infuriating community called the church – hoping to find?

In John’s gospel it’s the first question Jesus asks those who would follow him.  What do you want?

And I think that’s important because it’s what we want – not what we know or what we believe – that will drive the way we actually live.  Look at it this way; even if the magi knew that Jesus was the messiah, the promised one who would bring in God’s reign of justice and righteousness, if that wasn’t what they wanted, Jesus would be useless to them.

And it’s the same for us.  It’s our wants and longings and desires which are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behaviour flow.  Being a follower of Jesus is not so much about what you know or believe – although neither knowledge nor belief are bad – but about learning to want what God wants.  To love what God loves.

Jesus’ invitation to follow him is an invitation to line up our loves and longings with God’s; to learn to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he reigns over all; all of what is meant by what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

 

So in this sense, the centre of the human person is located not in our thinking but in our hearts.  Why?  Because the heart is the engine room of our love, and it’s our loves that drive us toward some ultimate concern.  It’s our desires that define us; in short, we are what we love.

This idea of the core of our identity being about the things we want carries some implications about human nature.  It suggests that to be human is to be dynamic.  To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something.  To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something.

To be human is to have a heart.  You can’t not love.  So the questions isn’t whether you will love something, the question is what you will love.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, put it this way.  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  Why?  Because if people long for the sea, they will willingly build the ship.

And this is what I so often am trying to do when I preach, or when we’re working together to plan the parish’s future.  I try to put in front of you a vision of who God wants us to be, what God wants us to do, that can spark in all of us a longing for the endless immensity, not of the sea, but of the heart of God Himself.  Knowing that if we can catch that vision together, we will willingly do what is necessary to move towards it, out of the dynamic power of our desire to see it accomplished.

The Magi came all the way to visit Jesus because they wanted something; they got down on their knees and offered him precious gifts in hope that he would be a fulfilment of their desires.  And they point us to the importance of attending to our own desires, and our own imaginations and hopes and deepest longings; as these will determine where we will go, and what we will do.