Three guys, all of them wise, have come a long, long, long way to find a child. Their camels are tired; the men are dusty; they’ve covered a lot of sand. And they’ve got a crick in their necks from keeping their eyes on a star. It’s been a difficult journey and after all this, it seems they’ve finally stopped long enough to ask directions. Maybe, just maybe as that silly, sexist joke goes, one of them really was a woman because, as most of us know, guys don’t usually stop to ask directions.
And for answers? All they get is a secret meeting with a puppet king named Herod. But there seems to be something too shady, too inquisitive, too ingratiating about Herod. “Go and search diligently!” he says. Duh – just what does he think they have been doing since they left home weeks ago? “And when you have found the child,” Herod continues, “bring me word . . . .” Did the hair at the back of their necks prickle? Did they notice his greedy, beady eyes?
So they take off again and continue to hitch their wagon to the star.
The star stops. The wise men are joyful. They enter a stable. They find the baby they seek. They kneel down. They pay him homage. They open their treasure chests. They present costly gifts. They leave. They go home by a different route. Mission accomplished.
Luke brings lowly, local shepherds to visit the Christ child. They came from just over the next hill. Matthew brings worldly, wealthy wise men. They come from distant kingdoms.
Matthew is a Gospel writer with a focus on mission. This holy child is one who draws seekers from far-away places. And this child becomes the Christ who after his resurrection appears to his band of followers on a mountain in Galilee and among his final words commissions them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19). Matthew seems to push a world view.
“Where is he – this Christ whom we seek?” Isn’t this the burning question in the heart of all of us who desire a relationship with God? Where is he – this Christ? Isn’t that the question that is at the heart of every mission?
In six days, a group of St. Jamesers will start out on a mission trip. We won’t use camels. It won’t take weeks to get there. We won’t stop off to talk to someone named Herod. And the only crick in our necks may come as a result of trying to take a nap on the airplane that flies us to our destination.
We do have treasure. Some of it has been sent ahead – wired ahead – $12,000 – the monies needed to complete the cost of a daycare center in Villanueva in Honduras just outside of San Pedro Sula . This will be a center that will help poor working mothers have a safe and nurturing place to care for their children while the mothers try to keep the jobs that feed and clothe their children and themselves. We do bring treasure – ourselves and our energy, to work clearing land for the center, to paint and restore buildings. We do bring treasure – our hearts and our time to love and spend on the girls of the Our Little Roses orphanage and the children and families in Villaneuva we hope to meet..
But, as with the mission of the wise men who came to Bethlehem , it isn’t really all about the tangible treasure we bring, is it? Of course, tangible treasure and gifts are great. But so often we forget that it’s not our gifts and our treasure we bring. We’re simply the pass through. It’s God’s gifts that we have been given by God that we bring. We’re simply the middle men, so to speak, the distributors, or re-distributors. I’m reminded of the words some congregations use when the offerings at the Sunday service are presented at the altar: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
But what is mission really about? It’s about bringing ourselves; about traveling the distance; about earnestly seeking and paying homage to the Christ in every child and adult with whom we come into contact. That’s the mission to which we are called.
The Old World view was that missionaries brought Christ to others. But that’s not really how it works. Missionaries are seekers; they look for and find Christ in those to whom they are called to be with.
The ultimate gift of the wise men was the gift of recognition and homage. They let themselves be guided by a star. They found that which they had sought and they knelt before it.
Where do we find Christ? How do we serve him? He tells us later in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s long after the wise men have gone home. It’s long after the scene of a baby in a manger has faded. It’s just before he’s going to be taken and put to death. Where will followers, seekers find him after he has gone? The answer surprises those who have ears to listen.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the question of the listeners turns to “When?” “When, Lord, was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to dink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king answers them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)
It’s about need. That’s what mission is about, isn’t it? Our need to seek, find, give and pay homage to Christ wherever and whenever we find him. And the need of those to whom we go to be found, to receive, and to be affirmed as Christ’s own. We meet Christ when we come together. It’s the need for connection – with each other and with Christ.
Where is Bethlehem for us? Where do we find Christ? What is our mission? These are not questions that yield easy answers or comfortable responses – for our mission teams here at St. James’s or for our mission and outreach efforts.
Bethlehem is as close as the homeless person who sleeps on our doorsteps or as far away as Honduras or Alaska or Africa . Bethlehem is found in Whitcomb court or the City Jail or the back alleys of our city or of a city half way round the world. Bethlehem is found in the crack houses just on the other side of Carytown, or in the eyes of children in the Sudan . The manger in which Christ lays is lined with the dirty blankets of a street person and the spent shells of teenage gangs emptying their guns and their hate as they prowl through project communities.
And distance? How do we measure distance? Sometimes a place half way around the world or in another hemisphere is easier to travel to than a prison thirty minutes away out River Road, or Whitcomb Court a couple of miles away, or the chair in Gibson Hall a few feet away beside a homeless guy who’s our CARITAS guest.
And paying homage to the Christ that is within the homeless, the sick, the diseased, the destitute, the abandoned, the angry, the violent, the stranger? Isn’t that the greatest challenge, but also the greatest call that Christ makes of us?
Three wealthy wise men traveled great distances to kneel before a poor, tiny, vulnerable baby and call him King. How do we, how can we kneel before a homeless street person in Gibson Hall, bow our heads and say, Christ, here am I. That’s the question!