Our gospel story today was about the Magi, mysterious wise men from the East, who venture far from home, to follow a sign in the sky, a star they believe will lead them to a child born to be the king of the Jews. It is a great story. I am glad that we heard it today, as we set out on something of a journey ourselves. For the next 3 months, we will work our way through Marcus Borg’s book, “The Heart of Christianity”.
This is a journey of exploration and discovery. It is a journey into what may be, for some of us, a strange place, beyond what is familiar to us. It may feel like we are going beyond our comfort zones. Perhaps the magi can serve as our models.
Over the centuries, many details have been added to the original Bible story about the Magi. We don’t know how many of them made the journey. The idea of three comes from the number of gifts. Our tradition says three, and calls them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but those names were added to the story sometime around the 6th century.
Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In Ethiopia, the Magi are called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.
There is no mention of the Magi once they leave Mary and Joseph and the baby, and head home a different way to avoid King Herod. Many traditions built up over time to continue their story. Some believe that the Magi continued to travel for many years, and that they met up with the Apostle Thomas while he was on his way to India, after the first Easter, Thomas baptized them, and that they later became bishops.
Another tradition says Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine found their buried remains, and had them exhumed, and brought to Constantinople. Later the bones were moved again, to the Shrine of the Three Kings at the Cologne Cathedral. According to tradition the remains of each Magi were carried on a different boat, which is reflected in the old carol “I saw three ships come sailing in”.
I think part of the reason the story of the Magi has been embellished, and had layers built up on it over the centuries, is that it was of tremendous symbolic importance to the early Christians.
Epiphany, the name for the day when we tell the story of the Magi, is not a Bible word. It has its roots in the Ancient Greek words epi which means upon, and phaino, which means shine or appear. It was used to describe the sun’s appearance at the dawn of a new day, or revelation or manifestation of God to a worshipper, which is also called a theophany.
The celebration of Epiphany highlighted the idea that the message of God’s love as we learn it through Jesus was not just for the Jews. The image of these holy ones of another religion bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus was taken to mean that Jesus’ message is God’s gift to all people, and needed to be shared. The image of the star appearing, and being understood by people who did not grow up in the Jewish religion, said that God’s light and love is shining for us all. In Jesus’ time, and in the centuries after, missionaries took up the work of passing on the message of God’s love.
As members of a faith community, that is what we are about, passing on the message of God’s love, to people, and to a world, that needs to hear it. Part of our challenge is to sort out how to express the message in ways that can be heard, and taken to heart.
In the late 1980’s I studied at a Quaker seminary in Southern Indiana called the Earlham School of Religion. There were students from many different denominations, and theological backgrounds. I was considered an international student, because I had come all the way from Manitoba.
I remember the curious looks I sometimes I got when I parked my little blue Chevy Chevette on campus. More than one under-graduate student asked where Manitoba was, and I would carefullu explain that Manitoba was a newly independent state, in the Balkans. They should come and visit our beautiful country! (The sad thing is, I think about half of them believed me! Does that make you wonder if you should believe what I say?)
In my first year I shared a house with a man named Jotham, from Kenya. He had served as a pastor for many years, and came to the United States to get his degree, so he could begin training other pastors to serve the 20 small villages that were his responsibility. He made the rounds to see his people on his bicycle. Jotham told me when he was growing up, there were no Kenyan pastors. All the Christian preachers and teachers were missionaries from England.
Jotham’s earliest impressions of Christianity were of being made to wear socks and shoes, and a dark suit, and a little bowler hat, to attend worship at 11 am, outdoors, under the heat of the African sun. His sisters had to wear long dresses, and bonnets, and little white gloves, because that was proper Christian attire.
Jotham’s family did what was expected of them, even though they had no use for those fancy clothes at any other time, except on Sunday morning, because they respected the missionaries, and believed that they were doing good in their village. But Jotham never really saw the point of those heavy dark clothes on those sweltering Sunday mornings.
More than 40 years later, Jotham could see the missionaries brought a whole lot more with them than the message of God’s love. They brought their Western European, British culture, with all of its ideas and biases about propriety, and class, and social status. “God Save the King” was as much a part of their Sunday School lessons as were the teachings of Jesus. Being a good Christian meant accepting your place in an empire under the rule of a distant monarch. It meant buying into the not-so-subtle belief that white English people were naturally superior to people of Jotham’s village, who needed to be saved from their heathen ways. Presumably wearing socks and shoes and a bowler hat were outward signs of having been saved. The message of Jesus was embedded in a culture.
Years ago Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, and former Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg was speaking about the legacy of the missionaries in his country. He said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
God was at work, even so. In spite of all the cultural baggage, and the racism, and the political agendas at work when the Europeans carved Africa up into colonial possessions, the liberating message of God’s love still spoke to the people. Desmond Tutu said, “In the Bible, we first encounter God when God sides with a bunch of slaves against a powerful Pharaoh, an act of grace freely given.”
Tutu has also said that he reads the Bible every day and recommends that people read it as a collection of books, not a single constitutional document: “You have to understand is that the Bible is really a library of books and it has different categories of material,” he said. “There are certain parts which you have to say no to. The Bible accepted slavery. St Paul said women should not speak in church at all and there are people who have used that to say women should not be ordained. There are many things that you shouldn’t accept.”
This is pretty close to one of the first points that Marcus Borg asks us to consider in his book. The Christian faith is passed along person to person, generation to generation. But not everything that gets passed along is the good news of God’s love. People take the message, but they interpret it, and they choose what they will teach, based on their worldview.
A worldview, or paradigm, is the set of experiences, beliefs, and values we carry inside of us, that affect how we see things. In the worldview of the missionaries in Jotham’s village, proper footwear and hats were seen as essential. It was also essential to teach Jotham to speak English, because that was considered more civilized, and therefore more Christian. Jotham’s challenge as he grew up was to hold on to heart of Christian message. You might say he needed to hold on to the baby, and not be afraid to pour out the bath water.
Our challenge, as Marcus Borg sees it, is to discern and cherish the heart of Christianity. To do this discerning, we may have to look closely at how much of what we accept as part of Christian faith is actually part of an older worldview or paradigm that may not be as useful or relevant in our time.
Borg ends the first chapter with an emphasis on the need to enter into what he calls an unending conversation about our faith. A man named Tim Scorer, who has a written a study guide to Borg’s book suggests that this conversation has three aspects to it. We receive what we have been given, what has been passed on to us. We interpret our faith, in light of life in the world we live in. We allow the faith we have been given to have its own voice in our current world.
Borg identifies 4 basic questions as major areas for conversation in a time of changing paradigms, that we will look at as we make our way through his book:
The Bible’s Origin: Is it a Divine Product, or a human response to God?
Interpreting the Bible: Do we read it as literally true, or do we allow that it could also be metaphorical?
The Function of the Bible: Does it reveal God’s final word on issues of faith and morality, or can we see it as part of an ongoing human effort to know what the Spirit of God is saying to us?
Christian Life: Is it all about believing and doing what is needed to get saved, so that we will go to heaven, or is it about an ongoing, transforming relationship with God in this life?
I have a few copies of Borg’s book left if anyone wants to buy one. I will be around at coffee time after worship so we can talk. I am looking forward to this ongoing conversation.