9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

Coming and Going

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12

(Audio not available.)

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Welcome back, welcome to 2019, welcome to Epiphany, the Christmas decorations are put away and we have moved on … but there are so many Christmas things we didn’t talk about. I want to talk about one of them, it’s sort of an Epiphany thing, if you stay with me, but it starts off like a Christmas thing, I want to talk about milk and cookies for Santa. Does your house leave out milk and cookies for Santa? In my childhood house, we always left out milk and cookies for Santa, and then overnight gifts from Santa would appear and the milk and cookies would go away and that seemed like more than a fair arrangement, I mean, I never put a lot of work into the milk and cookies, and I got way more in return for my labor, so it never occurred to me even to think about questioning the institution. If it’s not broken, let’s not fix it.

There is some research to suggest that this is a fairly modern tradition. Something in it stems from the Depression, right about when Toll House chocolate chips first came on the market, and chocolate chip cookies became a sign of charity because they could be shipped to husbands and boyfriends in service overseas. Cookies for Santa were just a domestic way of teaching children that same charitable impulse — here’s something we can make for others. But something in this tradition clearly has broader and deeper roots. Children all over the world leave presents for Santa or for Saint Nicklaus or for whoever comes bearing gifts in these winter months. British children have been known to leave out mince pies; in Sweden, rice porridge. Alcohol, also, is pretty popular — a glass of wine for Pere Noel in France; a pint of Guinness in Ireland. I’m not quite sure how that’s supposed to help Santa make his rounds, but here we are.

And then there are the gifts for the animals. Pere Noel comes with a donkey, who gets carrots. In the Netherlands, Santa’s sleigh is pulled by horses, who also like carrots, stuffed into shoes; sometimes the carrots are stuffed into hay stuffed into shoes. Because of course if anybody should be tired after such a long journey, it is the animals who have been pulling this sleigh all night long; I mean, if anything, Santa has the easy end of this gig. But then sometimes it’s not even Santa. In Puerto Rico, this is all about Epiphany. In Puerto Rico, Epiphany is the day, as it is so frequently across the Spanish-speaking world, and in Puerto Rico, it’s not Santa or Pere Noel or Saint Nicklaus who comes with presents. It’s the kings, Los Reyes. And so on January 5, every year, Puerto Rican children cut greenery and grass and place it in a box under their beds. And in the morning the kings have come, Los Reyes have come, and their camels have eaten some grass, and Los Reyes have left their presents.

I am fascinated with this tradition of the grass and the camels and Los Reyes because it suggests that the story of Epiphany at its heart might also be a story about hospitality. At first this seems hard to believe. These three magi come from some land to the East — Matthew is almost comically vague with his introductions here; trust me, if he wanted you to have biographical details about these Magi, then the Gospel-writer who spends an entire chapter tracing Jesus’s genetic lineage could certainly rustle you up biographical details. “Wise guys from the East” is all you’re going to get — and not even any guarantee that all of them were men. These three wise — folks — show up and there’s no obvious hospitality anywhere in sight. First they come to Jerusalem, where Herod gets into a frenzied panicked about this newly-born king of the Jews, and one supposes the only reason the magi make it out alive is because Herod thinks he can use them to track down the opposition.

And then we come to Bethlehem. The magi come to Bethlehem. And for everything this encounter is, even here, it surely doesn’t feel much like a story about hospitality. Mary and Joseph have not set the table or even cleaned the place up. Nobody offers tea or coffee or wine or Guinness. Not that anyone would fault them, they’ve got a newborn, it’s just that the story doesn’t feel built for hospitality. The magi are model visitors, of course. If the crèche sets are to be believed — the shepherds have been there for 12 days, but the magi show up at the very end with presents, and then they leave quickly. They are basically my ideal houseguests. But nothing within Matthew’s text offers us any sense of how Mary and Joseph readied the stable for company, whether anybody found these magi a place to sleep, whether anybody found them a cup of coffee, whether anybody found some fresh towels or pulled out that stash of hotel shampoo that you keep in your linen closet for guests. There’s nobody in this story doing anything that feels like a normal act of welcome.

Except the star. The star, actually, does quite a bit of hosting. It’s an unusual phenomenon, even for scripture — this heavenly body guiding foreign pilgrims far across the desert. It’s one of those turns of the story that gets weirder the longer you look at it. Part of what’s going on of course is that Matthew likes to establish the credentials of this story; multiple cultures around the Ancient Near East associate celestial events with the birth of major rulers, and so Matthew wants to draw the same association for his readers. In some ways this story is the parallel to that genetic lineage from a chapter earlier — having established his credentials within the canon of Jewish scripture, now he’ll also do it with star-gazers and astrologists who might read the heavens entirely differently. No matter where you look, Matthew says — no matter whether you look into the scrolls of scripture, or whether you look into the skies above — no matter where you seek God, all the roads of this story lead to Bethlehem, where the star waits.

And the star opens it arms wide. These magi may be loaded with gifts, but their journey is nonetheless perilous. They’ve come a long way, and they’ve come into a land where they are very much not the ones in charge. Matthew’s use of the word Magi may connect these three guests to ancient Zoroastrianism; there are to be sure modern-day Zoroastrians who claim these magi as their own ancestors; which means that here in Matthew 2 we have among other things a bit of interfaith dialog happening under the nose of Herod who as you can see is not exactly a fan of interfaith dialog — so these magi have made a perilous trek. Moreover, along the way, it would be hard to know where they might safety lay their heads. Not every door is going to open itself to a bunch of funny-dressed foreigners on an astrological spirit quest. Especially not when Herod is in one of his moods. Which means the star is doing the most important hospitality work there is. It’s hanging in the sky over Bethlehem making one bold claim. Here. This house. This place. This place where the child lies. This place where God beckons you. This is where you need to be.

This is, of course, why I love the Epiphany tradition of leaving grass for the camels, because it implies this impossibly strange gathering where somebody is sneaking the grass out from underneath a sleeping child’s bed so that a camel can have a midnight snack. Because it’s a strange gathering, by design, because Epiphany is about strange gatherings, this Jewish Messiah and these impossibly distant magi all united underneath one star. And hospitality is always about such strange gatherings. And the grass under the bed is hardly the only Christian liturgy there to remind us. Ever since the Middle Ages, not everywhere, and not always, but for centuries Christians have been marking the day of Epiphany with chalk. Chalk written over the doorframe of homes, symbols of the star, with the year about to unfold, and the initials CMB, Christus mansionem benedicat, may Christ bless this house. If you are particularly observant or sit on the UPC Building & Grounds committee you may have noticed that chalk shows up around these parts every once in a while — over John Leedy’s door, for example, all year it has been written, CMB 2018, it’s there right now.

If you don’t know what you’re looking at it’s almost impossible to decipher. It looks like graffiti. And of course the tradition which has no definite origin is almost certainly tied to the history of Jews in Egypt marking their door so that the angel of death would Pass Over them and their children — we’re not but a few verses from Herod taking on all of the infant children of Bethlehem, and Matthew knows his history. But the chalk blessing of Epiphany isn’t meant to mark houses to keep anyone away. It’s meant to invite people in. It’s meant to mark safe places, like the old hobo markings that would communicate which houses were safe and which weren’t. The epiphany chalk is meant to say: Here. This house. This place where the child blesses. This place is where God may beckon you. And if you need to be here, you are welcome. When you leave today, in the narthex, you will find a whole basket of chalk, and one small piece of liturgy, — “Make this house your abiding place, and bless all who dwell here with peace and joy in your Spirit.” I invite you to take a little Epiphany kit home and to bless your home in this New Year, so that all of our houses might be places of welcome to whoever needs them.

But it’s something more than that, too. Because remember that it is not Mary and Joseph who fling wide the door for the magi, but rather the star that so commits this entire story to being one of strange encounters and new relationships and unexpected gatherings across thresholds heretofore impassable. Which means that the chalk blessing isn’t just for those who come to our doorstep. It’s also meant to send us out into unexpected places. It’s meant to carry us beyond our own borders and across faraway deserts and through perilous lands and finding our way to beat-up stables in backwater corners of the empire. It’s meant to send us into this New Year with the courage and the hunger and the curiosity of those knocking on the door of a home whose doors are already open. This is what the chalk means. This is what the star means, because of course what the star is God urging us and sending us and gathering us across the desert and welcoming us into new destinations and putting us in a room with a camel and an astrologer and a baby just to see what happens. New Years are like that. May yours find you in blessedly unexpected places.

The poet Jan Richardson writes —

Think of the year
as a house,

door flung wide
in welcome,
threshold swept
and waiting,
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
to you.

Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.

Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.

let the weary come
let the aching come
let the lost come
let the sorrowing come.

let them find their rest
and let them find their soothing
and let them find their place
and let them find their delight.

And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty,
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.
And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.

—Jan Richardson