In the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, there’s a scene in which Fred Rogers and journalist Larry Vogel are having lunch in a restaurant. Larry is deeply scarred by family trauma that has left him angry and bitter. And Fred Rogers invites him to take one minute—60 seconds—to think about all the people who have given to him in ways that shape who he is today. Not just the traumatic things. And the whole restaurant becomes quiet during that minute, as if every person is participating in this exercise, too. So I invite us to begin with some silent time to reflect on all the gifts that people have given to us that have shaped us for the better.
We are blessed indeed with abundance. For most of us, someone was there at our birth to hold us, to coo at us, to count all our fingers and toes and marvel at the strength of our grip as we wrapped those tiny fingers around someone’s big adult finger. Someone made sure we were fed, helped us get an education, paid for lessons for this and that, taught us how to be good sons, daughters, friends, people. Someone hired us, paid us so we could afford to live. Many people have loved us throughout our lives, affirmed us, gone out of their way to do nice things for us. We are indeed blessed.
We in turn have had countless opportunities to return the favor or pay it forward. We have stared deeply into the murky eyes of our newborn children, gotten up at night to feed them or take their temperatures or soothe them after a nightmare. We have shared our many gifts broadly, whether those be building, singing, organizing, writing, feeding people, advocating on behalf of the voiceless, and so on.
So we know what it is to receive gifts, like the Baby Jesus. And we know what it is to give our gifts, even our most precious gifts, like the wise men. And sometimes we stop and give thanks for all who have blessed us with gifts in our lives, and all with whom we have been able to share our gifts.
Certainly this story of the wise men seeking the Christ child is about gifts. And these gifts have meaning.
Gold: worthy of a king
Frankincense: worthy of a priest
Myrrh: herb used to dress bodies in death—meaning that this new ruler will suffer and sacrifice
So this story is about gifts. But it is also a study of contrasts. Two kings, Herod and Jesus, and two entirely different ways of ruling. Wise men from afar, and wise men within the Jewish hierarchy. Those who welcome, and those who reject. Insiders and outsiders.
The wise men stop off in Jerusalem to ask Herod where the new king of the Jews might be found. You may recall that Herod the king rules by oppression and killing. He is a puppet ruler who has to toe the line with Rome. He is known for cruelty, even assassinating members of his own family. So when the scripture says that Herod was frightened by news of a new king, “and all Jerusalem with him,” we understand that when Herod is frightened, any terrible thing is possible. It may not be rational or well considered. And in fact we get the slaughter of the innocents just after this reading. No one is safe under such a king.
Rulers like Herod still exist. Cruel, insecure, narcissistic, unstable, irrational, power-hungry, greedy, ready to assassinate. It takes great courage to be in the inner circle of such a one and choose to go against the grain. Could you do it? I’m not sure I could. It might be too tempting to choose not to see, to convince oneself that everything would work out all right, to deny or downplay the suffering of others. Because seeing and believing would mean that something had to change.
So here comes this new king of the Jews, Jesus. He rules not through his own power but through his intimate connection with God. He centers himself in that God-power, through which all things are possible. He connects with people not through might and domination but through love, compassion, healing, forgiveness, acceptance.
The contrast between Herod and Jesus is the contrast between Pax Romana and Pax Christi, the peace of Rome and the peace of Christ. The peace of Rome comes through military might, power over others, through clobbering all your enemies until they are either dead or beaten into submission. This is a temporary peace, requiring constant vigilance and brutality. One dare not look at one’s own soul to see what one has become if one is a leader in such a regime.
The peace of Christ comes through loving our neighbors—including the immigrants knocking at our borders, including the plants and animals and all of creation—and caring about what happens to them. The peace of Christ comes through liberty and justice for all, not just as a pretty idea in our Pledge of Allegiance but as an ideal we actually live out every day. The peace of Christ comes from power with other, from committing ourselves to pay homage to the divine presence, no matter how far the journey, no matter how great the sacrifice, no matter how costly the gifts we must bring.
So the wise men ask Herod about this new king, and he scurries off to the scribes and priests to consult. It didn’t occur to me until recently to wonder why these Jewish wise men—the chief priests and scribes—did not go with the foreign wise men to find the Christ child. They’ve just found out that a new king of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem, and that these strangers are seeking him. So why didn’t they tag along?
My guess is that they’re thinking, “A new ruler? We’ve already got one, and he’s a doozy. Can’t imagine going behind his back to pay homage to anyone else.” So fear might hold them back.
Or perhaps complacency. This corrupt, oppressive system worked for the 1%, and they were part of that elite. They had the nice houses, the good income, three meals a day, fine clothes, power, and all the rest—as long as they didn’t question the system. They had no motivation whatsoever to go looking for a new ruler that would turn all the old ways on their heads.
Which ruler do we follow? Do we fall in line behind corrupt despots and keep our opinions to ourselves? Do we abandon justice for all and just focus on what’s in it for us? Do we subscribe to power over others, wiping out whole swaths of people or oppressing them—immigrants, LGBTQ folks, women—in order to keep old hierarchies in place? Or do we listen for where the Christ child is being born today, and offer our gifts there, no matter how far the journey or how great the sacrifice?
Think of the voices for justice arising in our midst today. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Greta Thunberg, speaking out on climate change. Locally, high school junior Grace Lambert of Kirkland UCC has also become a powerful voice on this theme. Voices speaking out in Hong Kong. Voices speaking out at our US-Mexico border. Voices in the streets even yesterday urging peace with Iran, not a new war. The Christ child is everywhere, inviting us to engage, to bring our gifts of time, energy, organizing, feeding people, building, and all the rest.
January is a good time to bring our gifts to justice work. Our state legislature is beginning its session. The Womxn’s March happens later this month. Our Green Team is showing a film on how farmers are adapting to climate change. There are lots of opportunities for us to share our gifts.
You notice that the magi took another road home. This can be read both literally and metaphorically. They didn’t go back via Jerusalem and King Herod, which would have been the logical route. Choosing another route would mean going way out of their way.
But on a metaphorical level, they have been changed by their encounter with the Christ child, by the journey itself, by their encounter with Herod, perhaps. The whole trip has been a life-changing adventure, and when they return, they are not the same wise people they were when they left.
What journey are we on? How are we seeking the divine Christ child being born in us, around us, in the world today? How are we daring to stand up to power-hungry leaders in order to practice a “power with” loving, compassionate way of living together?
In this New Year, as we reflect on where we’ve been and perhaps make resolutions about how we could do better, let us set forth with intention to seek that Christ child everywhere and anywhere, to offer him or her our very best gifts, to come with compassion and curiosity and openness to the unexpected places in which God is being born in our midst every day. The world needs us to do this. And the gifts will be abundant. Amen.