The Gifts of the Magi

Call to Worship: “I Bow” by Mary Lou Kownacki

ReadingMatthew 2:1-12 (New Revised Standard)

Sermon: Gifts of the Magi

Please join me in a moment of prayer.  Eternal Source of Light and Love, we open our minds and hearts to all that is good and we pray for a spirit of love and understanding to dwell in us deeply.  May the words of my mouth, the meditations of all our hearts, and the ways we live our lives bring more love, justice, and compassion into this world.  May it be so and amen.

The familiar song by James Taylor goes like this: Winter, spring, summer or fall…all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Because of Rev. Anthony David’s generous invitations, I have preached in this pulpit in the spring, summer and fall.  When I preached this past fall I prophesied that if Anthony keeps up with the current trajectory, I would be addressing you again come winter, quite possibly the Sunday after Christmas.  Here we are and clearly I need to take my gift of prophecy more seriously!  It is always my joy and honor to be with you.  Winter, spring, summer or fall…all you have to do is call!

The Earth is forever turning and we have arrived to our winter season.  The trees are bear, the weather is cold, the nights are long.  This winter we celebrated Hanukkah by lighting our candles; we celebrated the Winter Solstice on December 21 (in part because the world did not come to an end as some predicted—though it was a great excuse to throw “End of the World” parties!); and we also celebrated Christmas and agreed that “peace on earth goodwill toward all” is still something we desire to bring about.  Now we are in the hallowed time of ending one year and beginning a new year.

The Christmas decorations are coming down.  The lights of Christmas are being packed away for another year.  Next week when you come into the sanctuary, the garland will be gone.  We are moving on, but before we leave for good, I invite you to take one final look at the stable scene.  Look closely and see if you can find the faces of the Magi.

The Magi.  The word itself evokes mysterious images.  After all, add a ‘c’ to the word and you have “magic.”  That word scares many religious people and adds to the mystery.  There is a good deal of myth that has grown up alongside this story.  We celebrate it in the hymn, “We Three Kings,” but if you listen closely to the story, the exact number of visitors is not mentioned and the word “magi” itself means astrologer, not king.  What is mentioned are the three gifts, each of them symbolic: Gold (the kind of gift you would bring the King); Frankincense, (the kind of gift you would bring to the High Priest at the Temple), and Myrrh (the aromatic oil that was used to anoint the dead before they were buried).  When you stop and think about it, the gifts were not very practical for a baby were they?

According to this story, the exact time and place where the Magi visited is not clear either.  We can be pretty sure that they did not come to the stable because the story says they came to a house where Jesus was.  What that means is that they arrived sometime after Jesus’ birth.  In fact, they were quite late.  Some legends tell us that Jesus may have been two years old by the time they got there.  Do you know what would have happened if the “Three Wise Men” had been “Three Wise Women?”  They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts![1]  Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, I have visions of diapers, formula, and a pacifier!

I am not the only one who thinks gifts should be practical.  In fact, in the Andy Griffith Show, Andy and his loyal assistant, Barney Fife, are sitting around the courthouse discussing Barney’s gift to his parents on their wedding anniversary and Andy asks,

“What did you get them this year, Barn?”

“Well, they’re really special parents so I splurged and got them a septic tank.”

Andy looks surprised but controls himself: “A septic tank!”

“Well that was mighty kind of you Barn.”

To which Barney replies, “Yeah, I wanted to get them something they could use.”

And while it’s easy today to make jokes about the gifts offered 2000 years ago, I believe the Magi have some lessons to teach us today.  The story tells us that as soon as the wise ones see Jesus, they are overwhelmed with joy and fall down on their knees.  They lose their composure and reserve as sages in an act of true humility.  There are some who would say that they lose their credentials as “wise ones” because of this display of vulnerability and humility because we think to be wise means that we only show our strengths and not our weaknesses.  We think to be wise means that we show restraint with our emotions.  But the Magi, the wise ones, teach us that to truly be wise we must become vulnerable.  To truly be wise we must learn from others.  To truly be wise we must become humble.

But this is not all the Magi teach us.  The story tells us that after their display of vulnerability, after they open up their hearts to one another and to this holy child, they open up their treasure chests and offer gifts to him.  It’s not just the gifts that are important.  It’s what inspires them to give the gifts.  It is the love and honor and respect that pours from their hearts that is important.  Think about it.  They are late getting to Jesus.  They travel many miles to get there.  They carry heavy items with them throughout the journey.  And when the moment comes, the moment they all meet one another, all they want to do is offer gifts to him.

But here’s the catch.  I don’t think they offer gifts to him out of a sense of obligation or subjugation.  They offer gifts to him out of a sense of honor and respect for who Jesus will become, and who they already are.  I like to think that the Magi and Jesus recognize a kindred spirit in one another.  They recognize a deep spiritual connection with one another.  Think about this.  The Magi are from the East.  They are not Israelites.  They don’t practice Judaism.  They are from a different culture and a different ethnicity.  They are different from Jesus in every way.

Harvey Cox, a Harvard professor, wrote a book entitled, When Jesus Came to Harvard, and in this book he strongly suggests that these wise men, these astrologers, were practitioners of religions other than Judaism.  They were teachers from other spiritual traditions.  They weren’t Christian though because Christianity didn’t exist in the world at that time.  He interprets the word “magi” as “gurus” and calls them spiritual masters from the east.  So to update the list of visitors for today, we might include a Muslim dervish, a Buddhist lama, a Hindu sunyasi, a Confucian sage, and maybe a druid in the church school play.[2]

The point of Matthew’s story is that though these spiritual masters were not Israelites, they sensed that something was going on among the Hebrew people which was also important for them.  So they came to check it out.  And after they offered him gifts, they went home again.  They did not stay.  They didn’t become disciples of Jesus, nor was their any indication that they should.[3]

When the scriptures tell us that the Magi, upon seeing Jesus, “bowed low in homage to him,” it wasn’t about believing that Jesus’ spiritual tradition was more valuable than theirs.  I believe it was a deep bowing to one another out of mutual respect.  It was an Epiphany –a deep, intuitive realization that people from all spiritual paths have gifts to give one another.

Legend has it that when the Buddha’s enlightenment occurred,  he went to see five of his former companions that he used to practice with before his enlightenment.  These five men, who were very devout monks, felt that their companion had gone astray when he abandoned their customary practices.  They decided they would not pay attention to him anymore because he was no longer “one of them.”  But when the Buddha approached them, they were so struck by his transformation, by his serenity and the radiance of his personality, that they spontaneously placed their palms together and bowed deeply to him.

The Buddha had experienced Enlightenment: the direct and conscious realization of the oneness of the whole universe, and of his own unity with all things.  When the Buddha was enlightened, the first thing he said was: “Everyone has this enlightened nature!”  What this means is that in bowing to the Buddha, the monks were actually bowing to themselves and to all beings.  When the Magi bowed to Jesus, they were bowing to themselves and to all beings. 

I believe this encounter with the Magi, the teachers of other spiritual traditions, helped prepare Jesus for his own future as a spiritual teacher.  It also served to remind him that his path was not the only path.  Jesus was rooted and grounded in his Jewish tradition; and he also read the signs of the times with amazing clarity.  Jesus saw that the “time was ripe” for the Gentiles, who represented other nations and spiritual traditions, around the table.[4]

Like Jesus, I am deeply rooted and grounded in a spiritual tradition.  My spiritual tradition is Christianity.  Unlike Jesus, I have not always read the signs of the time with the same clarity.  Many years ago I joined the pastoral team at a church in San Francisco and preached a lot.  However, I only preached from the Christian tradition because that’s what I knew.

A member of the congregation who is deeply connected to Spirit, and who I have a lot of respect for, came to me one day and asked if she could talk with me and I said yes.  She said to me, “You like Jesus a lot!  Right now, you are limited.  You need to learn more about other spiritual paths.  Right now you filter everything through Christianity and Jesus.  Not that this isn’t valid, but it’s only one way.  Half the people at this church are way over Jesus.  Some are not.  You have to learn to speak to all of them.  There are many people and many paths.  Listen to them.”

Her talk with me led to an Epiphany in my own life–a deep, intuitive realization that people from all spiritual paths have gifts to give one another.  Reaching out beyond Christianity (while still staying connected to it) and exploring other spiritual paths, sent me on a multi-faith journey and eventually led to me exploring Unitarian Universalism. 

People from all spiritual paths have gifts to give one anotherI experience this most deeply in my work as a hospital chaplain.  I encounter patients daily whose spiritual traditions are different from my own.  Eight years ago during my residency in California, I stood at the bedside of a 54-year old Muslim woman who had recently moved there from Iran.  She came in through our Emergency Room and fifteen minutes after I arrived, she died from a massive brain hemorrhage.

She was surrounded by 18 family members, all from Iran, who were in extreme shock and grief.  They wailed and cried out in anguish.  They held and kissed one another.  They spoke in Farsi, which is not a language that I needed to speak to know they were in terrible pain.

We had gifts to offer one another from our spiritual paths.

From my Christian tradition, I gave them the gift of creating a container for their grief.  Literally and figuratively, I created a container for them that said to them, “You are safe inside this space.  I see you and God sees you.  Your grief, your anguish, whatever you feel, is allowed here.  And, no matter what happens, your dark night of the soul is not too big for God to contain.”  That’s the gift I gave them as I held them in that space.

Their gift to me was in helping me truly understand how connected we all are in this world, regardless of where we come from or what we believe.  I felt deeply honored as they asked me to pray and bless their mother after she died.  I asked them if they had a particular Muslim prayer they wanted to say and the eldest male member of the family said, “No.  God is God.  It’s okay that you’re Christian and we are Muslim.  You pray for her and us.”  And I did as we joined hands at her bedside.

A little while later, their Imam, their spiritual teacher, arrived at the hospital.  As we walked toward one another, we stopped, and we bowed to one another out of mutual respect.   It was a deep recognition that people from all spiritual paths have gifts to give one another.  Until that night, I had never before bowed to another person, but when this gentleman came in, I was completely overcome with honor and respect for him.  Bowing is what came naturally.

Now I understand what the Buddha was talking about, what the Magi were talking about, what Jesus was talking about, and what all spiritual traditions seek to show us: We all have gifts to give one another and to truly be wise, we must learn from one another.  To truly be wise, we must become vulnerable.  To truly be wise, we must become humble.  When we bow to one another, we are bowing to ourselves and to all beings.  May it be said that of all who give gifts, we are the wisest.  We are the Magi.  Blessed be and amen.

[1] Author unknown

[2] Cox, Harvey.  When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, p. 76.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cox, Harvey.  When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, p. 84.