The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Today is kind of a controversial day on our church calendar. It’s the second Sunday after Christmas, the twelfth day of Christmastide. But tomorrow is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, the day when the wise men arrived to bring gifts to Jesus, who they understood to be a divinely appointed king of the Jews. This Feast Day is always on January sixth, after the last day of Christmas.
Some people think we should still be celebrating the birth of Jesus. The truly staunch traditionalists didn’t put their Christmas trees up until Christmas Eve, and they’ll take them down tonight. Epiphany is tomorrow, they might say. Let’s not rush. And they would have a point.
Fortunately for us, The Episcopal Church is the church of the Via Media, the middle way. We are the church of compromise. So while we still have all of our Christmas cheer, the lectionary today also gives us the Epiphany story, so we can talk about the three wise men on a Sunday.
And here’s what I think about the three wise men: I think they’re ludicrous.
I mean, just put yourself in their shoes for a second. Or sandals. Whatever they wore. You’re going about your business—and you might have been astronomers or even astrologers, so your business might very well have drawn your eyes to the sky. But then you see a star brighter than the rest, and it’s not moving like the other stars. It’s special. That light in the sky seems to be calling out to you, beckoning you. Follow me, it seems to be saying. It doesn’t say where or how far or for how long, just “follow me.”
But you have work. More scrolls to study, some frankincense to harvest. And you’re having some friends over for dinner later this week. And besides, you don’t even really like traveling. The road is dusty, camels are not comfortable, and it’s hard to find a good place to sleep. And maybe you even have a family. Do you leave them because a star is speaking to you?
But here’s the thing: not only did three wise men, the three magi, decide to follow the star, it’s likely that they followed the star for at least two years until they found Jesus. I know we condense their journey into twelve days, but all the evidence in the Bible points to their journey taking much longer. I mean, they made pit stops in Jerusalem and hung out with Herod at least for a bit. But then they kept going.
They were committed to following that star. Why?
Because they believed it was a star for a king. They believed it was a star of hope.
I was talking to Ted Calleton on the phone the other day. As many of you know, Ted’s wife Kathy has a very rare form of cancer that Ted has described as whack-a-mole. When you take care of one tumor another pops up somewhere else. They’ve spent many weeks, maybe months, on planes and in hotel rooms, traveling to Florida and Minnesota for cutting edge treatments. It’s been exhausting for them. It’s been hard.
But when I talked to Ted, he was, as usual, funny in his sharp but still warm way. You can tell when he talks about Kathy that he really loves her. You can tell he’s tired. When I observed how exhausting and tiring it must be, he said something that really stuck with me.
“But isn’t that why we have our faith?” he asked. “Isn’t hope what it’s all about?”
Let’s be real: hope is ludicrous. Hope is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, ignorant optimism. Because hope, by its nature, is about the unknown, the unproven, and sometimes the impossible. Hope looks at the bleak facts and smiles. Hope looks at a difficult diagnosis and says, “what do we need to do?” Hope looks at a star that seems brighter in the sky than the rest and says, “yeah, I’ll follow.”
Hope is the only thing that gives meaning to suffering. I’m going to say that again: Hope is the only thing that gives meaning to suffering.
Because there is no hope without a mess, without hardship.
The Jews weren’t waiting for a savior to arrive because they were in a nice, comfortable, powerful situation. They were waiting for a savior to arrive because they had been conquered and reconquered over and over again, the rhythm of their lives dictated by invaders with bigger armies and better weapons.
They had been running on low-grade despair for centuries.
I think we know the feeling. That dread whenever we open facebook or turn on the tv or radio, and there’s a fresh wave of bad news: corruption, impeachment, brewing war in the Middle East. Again.
And some of our fellow Christians sanctioning all of it in the name of our faith.
It’s nothing new, though. It didn’t come with this particular administration or this Congress. Those of us in the Sacred Ground gathering have been learning about our country’s history of eradicating the Native Americans who once lived on this land, and the terrible conditions of the reservations where the ancestors of the few who survived now live. Where American leaders forced them to live.
Or of Africans brought over the Atlantic in chains on disgusting, overcrowded ships to serve as forced, free labor that would fuel the new American economy. And now their ancestors, our Black neighbors, are still more than three and a half times more likely to be shot by police than our white neighbors.
We’ve been running on despair for centuries, though some of us are more acutely aware of it than others.
But it is in the midst of this mess that a star appears. Brighter in the sky than all the others, beckoning us. Waking up the hope that is in us.
And hope changes us. It makes us drop what we’re doing, abandon the comfort of the old ideas that once guided us, overcome the fear of the unknown, and follow the star.
Ted is right: hope is what our faith is all about. Because ultimately, hope is about our trust in God. Trust that in the midst of suffering, Jesus comes. That in the midst of Israel’s suffering or the suffering in our own country today or the suffering caused by illness or hardship in our own lives, Jesus comes.
Hope gives us determination in the face of uncertainty. To fly all over the country for a cure. To meet every third Saturday or Monday and courageously discuss our participation in systems that harm our friends and neighbors who aren’t white—that harm all of us, really. To pray patiently, waiting for the Spirit guide us. To let go when it’s time to let go. To keep putting one foot in front of another even when the road feels endless or even impossible.
Hope isn’t just about seeing the star, it’s about having the courage to follow the star, trusting that wherever it leads us we will find Jesus.