Surprise

Kent Mayfield

Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque

December 23, 2018

 

Most years, I can scarcely hear the antique words from the Book of Matthew apart from the mental images it inspires. I can hardly hear this story without seeing three boys from Sunday school in ill-fitting tinfoil crowns held together by years of Scotch tape, sauntering down the center aisle in shiny old bathrobes, circa 1950, and whatever pageant finery the teacher-ladies at the First Baptist church could muster… young kings of Orient-near carrying ornate old jewelry boxes, priceless gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

It’s still hard—it’s very, very hard, actually, now 65 years later to hear the story of that epic journey without seeing all the churchly trappings of the 2nd graders’ Christmas…well, at least in the strong non-liturgical tradition of Main Street Christianity in mid-20th Century and perhaps today’s brand-name churches if not the big-box assemblies with rapped up “ O Holy Night” and YouTubed video panoramas of the Judean desert.

 

But, if you want a child-friendly telling of the Nativity, it’s best to search in another book: Luke, not Matthew. No, Matthew’s is the adults-only version of the Christmas story. It’s a tale of intrigue and deceit, disappointment and great violence. It’s a tale of fear…fear! But, most of all,  it’s a traveler’s tale. It’s the story of a journey. Those “wise men,” who are really quite gullible, set out in search of they-know-not-what. And they come sneaking back home by a whole different road, still not really knowing what they’ve just seen in Bethlehem, but forever changed by the journey. Ah, yes, the journey had taken them someplace they hadn’t expected. And they thought they could just come home and get back to their regular Magi lives as usual. But they cannot, poor star-haunted souls that they are. No, now they’ll spend their restless lives…still on a journey they never intended, a journey they’ve come to live, a journey they cannot quit.

 

“The travel bug,” some call it. Like Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, who goes on his life’s one great adventure, then comes home and dreams of it by his fireside for the rest of his days, forever a curiosity to his untraveled neighbors, changed forever by the journey, made strange and dreamy.

 

Thinking ahead to a post-Christmas vacation some years back, I once picked up a book of leisurely reading at a bookstore in Dodgeville. Back then, “Lonely Planet” published collections of travel essays—usually first person accounts of someone’s trips through exotic or less-than-exotic locations. The writers were typically Australians or Britons that no one has ever heard of. They told their true stories about paddling up the Niger River to Timbuktu or peddling trinkets across Sri Lanka and getting caught in the jungle with nothing to eat but birthday cake. I had been hooked on “Lonely Planet”’ travel writing years before, when I was myself a world traveler with dreams of glory. I used to entertain the notion of submitting some of my own adventures for publication, because one of the joys of reading “Lonely Planet” is the fresh realization with each new page that you could write a better story than most of these people. But I never did, which of course is the real difference between those unknown travel writers and us unknown travel…talkers.

 

A bus crash in Mandalay, an encounter with a kangaroo in the Australian Outback, a hidden walled garden in Jericho. I was about ten or eleven travel tales into this book, when something tripped a chord in my memory, and I realized that I’d read this book before…and not all that long ago.   One unmemorable book actually appealed to me so strongly that I bought and forgot it…twice! I hope I can remember not to buy it again five years hence.

 

Now, why do I tell you that slightly embarrassing anecdote? Perhaps because I think it says something about the journey that we, all of us, make through this world. Did I choose this book…or did it choose me? Apparently I liked the idea of the travel book more than the thing itself, for I didn’t even remember it after having read it. But, surely travel tales speak to something that I want to believe about myself. Somewhere in a part of my spirit where the year is forever 1965 or may 1952 or was it 1977, my life was set on a certain trajectory, and now the choice I made long ago—the choice to live overseas as a young man—the choice to learn classic Japanese—the choice to fall in love with an Irish Francophile from Chicago–turns around and makes future choices for me.

 

I’m no longer entirely free, not to say that I’m forever condemned to purchasing the same book over and over; reading it, forgetting it, reading it again, but it is surely true that I do, you do choose our way through this world, sometimes haphazardly, but mostly with great care. We choose our way through this world, and that way ends up taking us to places we never expected. It ends up taking us on journeys we never would have chosen. (The road to addiction, for example, never begins with the sentence, “I want to wake up in a dumpster in Racine.” It begins with the observation, “Wow, this feels good.” )

 

The roads we choose always take us to places we didn’t expect. We make one choice, perhaps early on, and that choice turns around and makes us again and again. We choose our path through this life of years, thinking that we are most fully free, but then the path we selected claims us. It makes other paths all but impossible. It beckons us forward into places that we never might have imagined. The path leads us on through discoveries, and disappointments, and moments of elation, surprise and, sometimes, pain that we would have preferred to avoid. So it is for anyone who would follow after stars, or saviors, or any passion. So it was for those Magi, and so it is for you and me. Beware when you go chasing stars.

 

Yes, Matthew is the grownup version of the Christmas story, for it tells of all the uncomfortable longings, and the risks, and the fears that we grownups know best. It tells of those strange stars whose distant beams reach into our lives and beckon us out into the world in a new way, in search of something we’ve never known before. This journey of the Magi speaks of the journeys that we, all of us, end up making through this world. We will chase after some great light or another: fitness, financial solvency, respectability, education, power, beauty. You name the light you chase. We all end up as travelers, throwing our energies into the pursuit of some distant star. Some of us pursue money or muscles or reputation, or appearances, or bright shining baubles that capture the eye but vanish at first-light. Others will risk all to journey through the inner country of the soul—that endlessly fascinating terrain within. Some will pursue the well-being of the immigrant, the alien, lost and stranger, too, we hope.  We will, all of us will, find a light to follow, and the light we choose will choose us again and again.

 

And so, what was it in the light of that strange and long-ago star that bid the Magi follow? Like those fishermen Peter and Andrew, whom Jesus called thirty years later, what called those Magi to leave their families and their life’s work, risk their professional reputations as Zoroastrian astrologers on a journey to see some great king who, then, turned out to be a mere peasant child? What bid them risk their own lives at the hands of Herod, paranoid lesser king of a backwater province far from imperial Rome? What made their journey possible, necessary, preferable—even—to living the stable, predictable, productive lives that they had right there in front of them? Why did they up and follow a star? Well, these guys are astrologers, after all. Reading the stars is what they do, right? Aren’t they just living their lives to their natural conclusions?

 

Aren’t we, all of us–Magi, middle-aged Midwesterners and all– just traveling in the lights we’re given and perhaps along the way discover the something unexpected in ever new and sometimes unnerving ways?

 

Garrison Keillor’s radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” parodied life in rural Minnesota—and in all of rural America, really.  He, Keillor, claimed that the Magi were probably Lutherans. He says, “They brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Myrrh is a sort of casserole made of macaroni and hamburger… You bring it in a covered dish, thus the speculation that at least one of the wise men might have been one of our guys. He was going to stop at the department store and get something expensive like frankincense or gold, but his wife—a wise woman—said, “Here take this myrrh. They’ll be hungry. And make sure you bring back the dish.”

 

As much as I like Garrison Keillor and his many insights, I must admit that T.S. Elliot has a far better artistic interpretation of the Magi story in his classic poem.

 

He wrote:

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of year

For a journey, and such a long journey”

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

….

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

 

…Were we led all that way for

Birth …?  There was a Birth, certainly.

We had evidence and no doubt.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

All this was a long time ago, I remember.

But set this down

And, I would do it again,

.  (Collected Poems 1909-1962)

 

For Elliot, the Magi’s journey is one of discomfort from beginning to end. As stargazers, all they could do when they observed a star laden with such meaning, was to put aside all their other pursuits and follow after it. It was just a matter of being true to their own God-given identities to follow. They sought majesty in the royal courts, of course, but there they found only jealousy and fear. They followed that same star on to the humblest of places, only to find the object of their journey wrapped in swaddling clothes, a mere peasant child, a strange mixture of joy and…disappointment. And back in Shiraz or Isfahan, “no longer at ease,” they spend the rest of their troubled lives haunted by the glimmering light of that star, haunted by memories of its strange and dangerous journey, called forward still to discover truth, and themselves, and even God in bold new ways. They’re no longer able to settle back into the lives of ease that they once knew because once, yesterday or long, long ago, they were obedient to something inside themselves, and they followed after the light of that strange star. It changed them forever, made them seekers, and as Matthew says, sent them home “by another road.”

 

Never quite what they were before, they become spiritual sojourners, only briefly at rest, always on the move, a quest endless and often perilous, a life they never could have known had they stayed comfortably at home.

 

Not so for us.  Not hardly.  Not entirely.  Most of us are not altogether true to who we are, and so we never follow our lives to their illogical but altogether natural conclusions. Never risking everything to chase after a good star; we end up chasing after lesser stars whose quests can never satisfy our souls. Or, we follow part way, decide we’ve found all we were looking for, circle the wagons, settle in or hunker down, hire a financial advisor and take up yoga. We put an end to the good and necessary journey that was meant to be lifelong and all-consuming.

 

The nostalgia of the holidays and its reminder-stars and glory-sent angels and gift-bearing sages from the East may, of course, ask strangely in now updated language:  If not to the stable in Bethlehem, where are we 21st century shepherds in Orvis boots called? What new ventures would the LED star atop the tree tempt us to undertake now?

 

The journey of Christmas could yet change you, take you to places you never expected or desired. It could, even now, take away easy answers and replace them with the quest itself. It could, it does, call us ever forward.

 

And so, for all of us who teach, and preach, and visit, and sing, and maintain the building; for all of us who nurture the children, and sit on committees to think up creative solutions to old problems, who greet, and help with social justice and renewal efforts, and serve in whatever other ways we can; for all of us whose live land us in these pews time and again, a question: Did we choose all of this, or did it somehow choose us?

 

My answer has come to be this: Our calling, like that of the Magi of old, is simply to be who we were made to be or found to be or chose to be… to follow those unique and irreplaceable realities, our eyes and hearts open to awe and delight, to risky ventures in  perhaps bewildering, yet unknown and just maybe beyond-our-fondest-technicolor-Christmas-morning surprising places. .

 

No, the Christmas journey doesn’t end when you find Jesus in a hallowed bed of sweet-smelling straw; instead, it calls you back to your everyday-ordinary life, there to seek and find and seek and find again and again.

 

The journey may give you no rest but may it bring you peace. Amen.