Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Continuing testament: Shoulders, by Naomi Shihab Nye
As a new mom, I have to tell you my perspective on our scripture this morning has changed in the last month or so. My beloved August Jane is so clearly divine. When her normally unfocused eyes stumble on my face and she looks at me, it feels like God has decided to look right at me. She has no social skills about staring. She just holds my face in her gaze until I receive her fully. Her toes are perfectly edible. Her cheeks also. Her presence dissolves the chaos of the outside world into white noise. And when she falls asleep curled up on my chest all warm and snuggly, her feet nestled under her and her hands folded neatly under her chin, I feel heaven, God’s Realm, in my body. She is joy incarnate. And I am ready to bend over and pay homage on my knees, just like the maji.
And at the same time, I have never felt so out of control, so scared of the weight of a responsibility or so vulnerable in my love. It doesn’t help that I have never been so tired in my life. August’s first two weeks alive, I didn’t sleep more than a half hour to an hour at a time because we had to feed her so often to get her back to her birth weight. I have also never been so intimate with poop and pee and spit-up. That’s a poetic way of saying I find spit up in my hair and have been projectile sprayed with fluids from the other end. And then there is this label of “Mom.” One of you lovely Lyndalians asked me on Christmas Eve how I was feeling about being a mom. I looked at her and said, “I have no idea. I haven’t had time to think on that kind of meta level.” And yet internally, my breath caught and I thought “holy BLEEP I’m a MOM! I don’t know how to do that, and be a pastor and be a whole person in this world!!!!”
The presence of a baby – whether her name is August or his name is Jesus – is surely both divine mystical bliss and divine disruption of life as we know it.
Jesus was born into a time not entirely unlike today. On the throne sat King Herod, “history’s most hysterical megalomaniac,” according to one scholar. Another scholar sets the scene of our scripture this way:
“[Herod] held a position of significance, but… he hungered for more. His appetite for power left him vulnerable in his leadership, relationships, and life… So on that fateful day when the intellectuals from the East appeared in Jerusalem, asking questions, it was a day of trepidation for… all the people of Jerusalem. Imagine the expression in King Herod’s face when his staff informed him of the erudite philosophers of wealth and status entering the city. … The king might have believed he had ‘arrived.’ Sadly, he learned, the maji were not inquiring about how to meet him. They were asking the natives, ‘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. ’In an instant, the king’s lifted head of arrogance declined as the rage of humiliation rose… Fear of losing control took over.”
Meanwhile, those Maji went on their way. Also people with access to the center of power structures, yet they weren’t threatened by the birth of the new King, a new Messiah, a new President accountable not to this world but God. They were in the orbit of God’s mystic presence already, following the signs of the stars they believed would lead them. As Dante put it, God is “the love that moves the stars.” The Maji weren’t afraid to follow that love as it guided them to this new divine royalty. They took step after step, drawn further and further out of the familiar city and into the rural landscape of Bethlehem where nobody of worldly significance would normally travel. And yet, a baby had just been born. A divine baby. A human baby. A baby like each and every one of us – and yet written in the stars to transform heaven and earth.
On this Epiphany Sunday, the day we honor the arrival of the maji at baby Jesus’ birth and participate in their journey and their joy, I find myself strangely torn. As a new mom, I can feel my way into both Herod and the Maji’s reaction to the birth of this baby, this promised Messiah. I don’t mean to compare impact of my reaction to that of King Herod or other megalomaniacs we know, but just to recognize the impulse lives in all of us.
In the words of my ever-wise friend, fellow activist and body worker, Susan Raffo, “Capitalism, white supremacy and all of the systems of dominance that are aligned with them depend on disconnection and isolation. Disconnection and isolation deepen our need, our longing and our hunger for a feeling of home. They can be linked to feelings of powerlessness or stuckness. They can feel never-ending.”
When I read this, I reflect on the two pathways of our scripture story. And two very different possibilities or choices connected to them. Living in a world of disconnection and isolation, when we feel their symptoms of powerlessness, when we feel our worlds spin out of our control, we can choose to grasp more tightly to whatever possibilities for control are nearest. For those with power like King Herod, that means hatching schemes to kill off threats to our thrones… or our Twitter accounts. For the rest of us, that means hatching schemes to avoid any threats to our sense of self-sufficiency, or what Susan calls our “survival strategy around which disconnection becomes ingrained in our way of living as ‘normal.’” We can keep numbing out – on our drugs of choice – sugar, Netflix, news, alcohol, social media, etc. We can keep justifying not asking for help. We can keep finding excuses for our behaviors that lead us over and over into isolation.
Or we can choose to follow the star like the Maji toward the place our soul will find a home. That pathway requires the hard work of taking step by step down the unknown road toward reconnection. Susan talks about connection not as a thing we have or don’t, but as a capacity we grow in ourselves. I imagine it like a muscle that we have collectively let get a little flabby. “Reconnection,” she says, “is about building our capacity for connection (with ourselves, with our kin and community, with land/spirit, with our histories).” In my spiritual language, I would say it is about our capacity to notice God in each of these – ourselves, our kin, our community, the land and our histories, and bow down like the maji in joy and homage.
This is not a singular event, isolated to one Bible story or one moment of our lives of epiphany. It is spiritual weight training. Did you know the goal of weight training is always to “fail” – to get to the point where you can’t do it? That’s where strength grows. I think divine disruption is like that too. The strength of connection with God grows at the edge of our failure. This connection grows each time we dare to share our vulnerability, our messy places, our spit-up covered hair and sleep deprived frog voices, our existential fears, with each other. After all, didn’t God give us Herself in the form of a squiggly, entirely incapable of taking care of himself baby?
Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye gave me the modern interpretation of this epiphany scripture story that, if I could have given a two minute sermon, would have been my entire sermon this week. I leave you this morning with this vision of epiphany:
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
May we carry each other towards the star…
 James C. Howell, “Matthew 2:1-12,” Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 1, 2008.
 Shelley D.B. Copeland, “Matthew 2:1-12,” Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 1, 2008.