The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Over the past several weeks we’ve watched our wise men traverse the continent of St. Paul’s, ranging everywhere from the implausible (the reredos of the altar) to the practical (the base of the lectern) to the symbolic (the baptismal font). They’ve journeyed far, and at last, today, as we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany, they have found their way to their long-awaited destination.
Historians theorize that the wise men from the east were practitioners of Zoarastrianism—a religion of eastern origin, proclaiming, among other things, belief in one god, the existence of heaven and hell and free will—and perhaps most importantly for us today—the victory of light over darkness. Here’s what the Bible tells us—these wise men (note—they are not “kings”), these individuals, were seekers after the truth. They were willing to put their faith on the line, leave everything behind and search for God—not simply in the places where one might expect to find God: Board rooms, basilicas, temples and halls of government, but even in the backwater hamlet of Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, born to the poor and vulnerable.
I’m fascinated by these individuals, courageous enough to leave everything to search for God. How many of us would be willing to launch such an expedition? And yet…if I hazard a guess, I would say that there are more than a few of us gathered here who have not, in some moment of our lives, longed to search for Truth—to reach for God and grasp at the infinite. There is something about our human condition that causes us to question—to look beyond ourselves to something larger and more meaningful than our momentary existence on earth—something that made people thousands of years ago load up their camels and traverse a desert, and others drop to their knees in prayer and supplication.
Today at our 10:00 a.m. service we have the privilege of baptizing Lilly Gillis and welcoming her into the Family of God. Immediately following her baptism, we pray to God, on behalf of Lilly, asking the Lord to: “Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love the Lord, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” In other words, we’re asking God to gift Lilly with the spirit of the wise men of old—a spirit to search for and find the Almighty.
The quest for God has always been a challenge—yet, in many ways, it is somewhat more of a struggle today than it has been in the past. My observation is that for those of us living in modern times, the concept of Religion itself has become something of a problem. Even the word “religion” can cause hackles to raise depending with whom you happen to be speaking. To propose to speak of religion, particularly in a public venue, is considered one way to make oneself persona non grata. In fact, one suggested method by which to ensure silence during an airline flight from whomever happens to be seated next to you is to don a t-shirt proclaiming in bold letters: “Ask me about my relationship with Jesus!”
In truth, we don’t know how to speak of religion—we’re as afraid of being accosted by Bible wielding Baptists as we are by Muslims bearing Korans—and, in truth, if this is indeed the case—well, I have news for you, we’re just as prejudiced against one as we are against the other. And if we are, perhaps we should ask ourselves why. What’s wrong with listening to someone (anyone) speak of their faith? What’s harmful about learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or why a Christian fundamentalist believes in biblical inerrancy? What’s threatening about that? Of what are we afraid? Could it be that one thing we’re most fearful of is that we might not have the words to say why we might think differently; that our faith might not, in truth measure up? Or, merely the thought of differing opinions is enough to set our teeth on edge. And if this is the case. Well, now isn’t that sad.
Because, one thing our world, and our nation, in particular, needs, is more authentic conversation. Conversation about things that really matter. Notice that I say conversation—not debate. Not slogans, not facebook posts, and heaven-forbid, not tweets. Not sarcastic one-liners designed to demean or shut someone up. What we need is conversation—predicated upon listening and responding—from the heart. And it begins with an earnest desire to seek for and find God—to live into the promise of God fulfilling in us what it means to have an inquiring and discerning hearts.
A former parishioner once told me a story about the Dalai Lama. A person met the Dalai Lama and explained that they were a seeker after God, and they asked about how one went about becoming Buddhist. The Dalai Lama asked the individual: “In what religion were you raised?” The person replied: “I was raised a Christian.” The Dalai Lama replied. “I suggest you go back and become the very best Christian you can be.” In other words, the problem is not the religion, it’s our lack of understanding of what already belongs to us.
So, here is my wish for you (and for Lilly) as we begin a new year, and as Lilly begins her new life in Christ. That we take upon ourselves the spirit of the wise men. You see, we don’t have to travel far in distance—but long in heart. Take this year to search your faith—not to scratch at the surface, but to plumb the depths. Explore the beauty of simplicity that can turn a simple piece of Shaker furniture into art; figure out how the Holy Spirit speaks through the silence of a Quaker Meeting, and how the mystery of God fills a church through the beauty of Anglican Chant. Understand the gift of Free Will and the beauty of the English Language through the words of Thomas Cranmer’s Common Prayer. Learn the art of Christian meditation. Study the symbolism of church architecture. Ever heard of an Anglican Rosary? They exist. Find one. Join an Adult Inquirer’s Class this Spring. Reconnect with God. Afraid of Fundamentalist relatives and friends who toss out scriptural quotes as though wielding weapons? Talk with your priest—learn how to read the Bible. I’ll be happy to teach you. It’s not that difficult. Don’t be intimidated by faith—let God open doors to understanding. There is a treasure in our Christian faith and tradition waiting to be understood and owned by you.
It’s become trendy to say: “I’m spiritual, not religious” –meaning, I suppose, that one is attempting to chart one’s own course without the benefit of an established community of worship to call one’s own. In my mind, that’s like attempting to traverse the Atlantic without benefit of a map or compass. It’s true, you might get to the other side, on the other hand, odds are better that you will find yourself going in circles, ultimately getting nowhere. Instead, learn from those who have walked that path before you (such as the wise men of old) and others, who are willing to walk alongside you now, in community and in prayer. The wisdom of the wise men—that hasn’t left us. It is with us even today; leading and guiding us to seek the light of Christ so that we too might pay homage to the Son of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.