Whew! We made it to 2022! Remember where we were this time last year? At home. Unvaccinated. Working to stay connected as a community without meeting together.
Last year, you received your star words by mail. In this relatively new tradition, everyone is given a star word on Epiphany. It’s an invitation to reflect on that word for the coming year, to let it guide us, like the star guided the magi in today’s Gospel story.
My word 3 years ago? Humility. Yeah. That was a long year. My word two years ago was trustworthiness. I tried to put it back and get another word, but…the word was trustworthiness. Yeah. Another long year. My word this last year? Stability. That one’s been more interesting…I’m still unpacking what it means.
Last year, for the first time, we had a star word for our congregation. Don’t say it outloud, but do you remember the word? I’ve had the star word on my office door all year. Mars and Gabriel, might you all go and get the word and bring it back?
While they’re doing that, let’s visit a minute with our friends, the magi. In the Christmas story, we have shepherds and angels, animals and Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph have gone to Bethlehem–as other Jews had done–to be counted in the census. Then later, come the magi… astrologers…not Jews…probably Zoroastrians.
It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. People following a star for up to two years to honor and give gifts to a baby of another faith. So far as we know, the magi didn’t convert to Judaism on their visit. Because of Herod’s treachery, they chose a different path …but after visiting this Jewish family, they simply returned home.
Striking, isn’t it, that the story of Jesus’ birth begins with an interfaith encounter, a meeting between Zoroastrians and Jews? If you add us Christians who are reading this story, the multi-faith encounter with the story of the magi’s visit becomes even more diverse. I’m reminded of these instructions for “how to respect other religions: Eat together, pray together, and hold each other’s babies.” Exactly!
We’ve lost many beloved public figures in recent weeks–bell hooks, Betty White, Desmond Tutu…How good it was to inhabit the same planet as that compassionate, wise, and brave soul! He will be missed.
Here’s how Archbishop Tutu described multi faith engagement. “The God who existed before any religion counts on you to make the oneness of the human family known and celebrated. God is not upset that Gandhi was not a Christian, because God is not a Christian! All of God’s children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God.”
No faith has all the answers. We’re all just trying to figure things out. Religions give us language and rituals for how to understand what, ultimately, is mystery. Our understanding broadens when we listen to people of other faiths explain life from their perspectives.
Ah! Mars and Gabriel are back. Do you all remember our congregation’s star word for the year? Yes. Redemption. When I drew it last year, I wanted to put that one back, too. For those of us who grew up in fundamentalist traditions, “redemption” has a lot of baggage. In that tradition, being redeemed means getting saved from sin, which is grounded in a theology of substitutionary atonement. For some of us, the word “redemption” sent a shiver up our spines.
But reflecting on “redemption” this last year, its meaning has deepened. First, redeeming coupons. That’s positive, right? Some of us remember redeeming S and H Green Stamps. Turning 3 books of sticky scraps of paper into a watch or a hair dryer? Cool.
We’ve done a little redemption here at First Congregational this year. Look what we’ve accomplished in a very difficult year. We’ve extended our extravagant welcome to our online community. We’ve returned to in-person worship. We’ve welcomed 20 new members. We’ve hired the world’s best Music Director and organist. As a community, we have taken one of the most arduous years on record and we have redeemed it.
When I think of redemption, I often think of a friend of mine who used to retrieve furniture from the side of the road and refurbish it. The results were stunning. Tim took pieces others had given up on and brought them back to life. That’s what we’ve done this year with our community. We have redeemed difficult circumstances…with stunning results.
My understanding of redemption deepened even more when I read a collection of Oscar Romero’s sermons titled, The Scandal of Redemption. Romero looked at redemption in the context of the poverty of the congregants he served in El Salvador. He said that when the suffering poor name their suffering–and the injustices that cause it–the world can be changed; their suffering can be redeemed. Listen:
“If we want to find the child Jesus today, we shouldn’t contemplate the lovely figures in our nativity scenes. We should look for him among the malnourished children who went to bed tonight without anything to eat. We should look for him among the poor newspaper boys who will sleep tonight on doorsteps, wrapped in their papers…In taking all this upon himself, the God of the poor is showing us the redemptive value of human suffering.”
Romero goes on…“We were indoctrinating the poor when we told them, ‘It is God’s will for you to live poor and hopeless on the margins of society.’ That is not true!” “The greatest violence comes from those who deprive so many people of happiness, from those who are killing the many people who are starving. God is telling the poor, as God told the oppressed Christ when he was carrying his cross, ‘You will save the world by making your suffering a protest of salvation and by not conforming to what God does not want. You will save the world if you die in your poverty while yearning for better times, making your whole life a prayer, and embodying everything that seeks to liberate the people from this situation.”
“By being born this way, Christ has a lesson for the poor countries and the humble hostels; he has a lesson for those freezing at night in the coffee harvest and those sweating by day in the cotton fields. He is teaching them that all this signifies something and that we shouldn’t miss the meaning of suffering. Dear brothers and sisters, if there is one thing that makes me sad in this hour of El Salvador’s redemption, it is the thought that many false redeemers are allowing the suffering that is our people’s force of redemption to go to waste. They use the people’s hunger and marginalization for demagoguery. The people’s suffering should not be made a motive for resentment and desperation; it should make people look to the justice of God and realize that this situation must change.” “How I wish that child, nestled in straw and humble cloth, would speak to us this Christmas of the sublime value of poverty!”
Reading Romero’s words, I reflected on our neighbors without permanent housing here in Asheville…the encampments that keep being cleared out, sometimes with little to no notice…the large number of people who are overdosing because of a bad batch of fentanyl…the people who suffer from the cold on Code Purple nights… We still have people coming to our doors asking for Code Purple.
When I read Romero’s words, I wonder how we might become allies with the poor in our own community. How might we support the poor as they name their suffering? How might we–as followers of Jesus–redeem the suffering of so many in our wider community?
I also wonder how we might work with people of other faiths to work with the vulnerable to redeem their suffering.
A church I once served participated in a program called Family Promise. In it, faith communities in our county provided spaces for families without permanent housing to stay until they could get back on their feet. Residents of a Muslim community in another county lived near our church. They weren’t able to host families at their mosque, but members of that community wanted to help support families served in our county. Because we were a smaller congregation, the women of Amadiyya community were paired with our church.
The group was led by an energetic woman named Mahmooda. Mahmooda and other members of her community provided breakfast and lunch when we hosted Family Promise.
At first, it was a little scary for us; we hadn’t had a lot of encounters with people of Muslim faith. But working together on Family Promise taught us a lot…particularly, about Muslims’ strong commitment to caring for others. For them, it wasn’t, “Oh, when I have time, I’ll serve the poor.” It was, “We serve others. This is what Muslims do.” We learned so much from our friends at Amadiyya.
Here’s more wisdom from Archbishop Tutu: “It doesn’t matter where we worship or what we call God; there is only one, interdependent human family. We are born for goodness, to love – free of prejudice. All of us, without exception. There is greater commonality in our belief systems than we tend to credit, a golden thread expressed in the maxim that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” “God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.”
And so, as we recall the scene of the wise people of one faith holding a baby of another faith, may this be our epiphany: “That we will realize that we–the whole human family–are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.” That will be the magi’s gift to us.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022