Going about our day as the same old same old is not only boring, it’s downright dangerous! God calls us to live our lives in new ways, faithful ways, daring ways. Release the clutter of 2017, and live a new life.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men [magi] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Return Home By Another Road
Today’s scripture marvels at the wisdom of the Magi, three exotic travelers. Scholars believe the Wise Men were actually Zoroastrian priests, or even Zoroastrian missionaries, who came from afar. (They were not kings. Here, the tradition is inaccurate.) The Magi, having already experienced the off-kilter leadership qualities of Herod the Great, began to heed their intuition regarding him. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Is it that simple? Just choose another road? Do something else?
Once I had a voice teacher who would stop my singing and say, “Try something different.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Anything would be better than what you’re doing,” was his usual reply.
In hindsight he was right, but in the moment, it was so disorientating to hear that anything else would be better than what I first thought was good.
Today’s lesson is Get up and go to safety. For the Magi, safety meant taking the road less traveled.
This is the poetry of San Francisco’s own Robert Frost (1874-1963).
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
What Might Have Been: Regret
Robert Frost says that this poem is about the road not taken—the regret of a lifetime of hesitant choosing and the sadness of potential unfulfilled. To forever retreat into inaction is the essence of tragedy: the risks not taken, the teachable moments expired, the hard words of integrity left unspoken.
Although God gives us eternal second chances, the world does not. So, living as people of faith is extremely important as we take stock of 2017 and face all that lies ahead in 2018. Will we travel the same old roads Herod expects from us, or will we heed the angels of God and choose another way?
This week it was impossible for me to sit with today’s scripture about a paranoid ruler and not wonder about the real-world similarities. Herod the Great worried that the occupied Jews, led by the newborn king. would mount a revolt. So, regarding the Jews as less than fully human, Herod orders the killing of all Jewish males under the age of two.
When leaders paint whole swaths of the population with fear-mongering stokes, something is wrong. When leader single out ethnic and other minority groups as the problem, something is wrong. When leaders choose to use a hammer where they could have used a feather, something is wrong. I wonder. Who were the reasoned advisors surrounding Herod, those who forever regret not speaking up?
3 Immigrant Ride-Sharing Drivers
Over the past couple weeks, I have ridden with several Lyft drivers, all of them immigrants. One, from Brazil, won a Green Card lottery and is living his dream, becoming a citizen of the United States. Another, from Mongolia, already passed her citizenship tests but wondered if she was “crazy” for coming here, fearful of the new tax code. She taught me some of the details I had yet to learn. Another, a young lesbian woman from Brazil, came to San Francisco looking for a new family, a “family of choice” after experiencing the painful rejection of her family of origin. All three of these people are separated from their homes, seeking a new, safe home. It is this openness that made America great to begin with.
There is at least one Christian refugee in this congregation today. He’s a truly wonderful person of faith and needs our help. I can’t say anything else about him because this sermon is available online, and he is seeking safety from an oppressive government. If you would like to assist in housing a fine person of faith, please see contact me for details.
Our Response to Migration
If the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a formal stance on immigration, it begins with today’s scripture lesson. The Holy Family—Jesus, Mary and Jospeh—became religious and political refugees when they entered Egypt. Scripture makes this statement clear as day, and there’s no way around it: they were refugees.
Our denomination’s websites  offer many ways to learn about responding faithfully to the global refugee crisis. Our session has committed this congregation to a time a exploration, asking not what we want but what does God want. How does God want us to respond to the current refugee and immigration crisis? We know already what we want—and what many do not want—but what does God want?
Deepening the Conversation
Presbyterian minister, Rev. Dr. Amaury Tañón-Santos, wrote in a recent article for the Presbyterian News Service the following, her words:
Two years ago, one of the pastors of a central New York presbytery and I had the opportunity to meet with the congressman of the area—a self-identified moderate Republican with a genuine interest in having a conversation on immigrants in his district. The congressman accepted our invitation to come to a roundtable discussion with pastors in the presbytery. About 20 leaders showed up, three of whom identified as immigrants—the host and myself, both Latin-American, and a community leader hailing from Africa. The rest of the group consisted of white leaders who did not identify themselves as immigrants. At least, not at first.
It was only when asked how many considered themselves “cradle Presbyterians” and then encouraged to trace their Presbyterian pedigree, that they realized they were not merely “white” but they were Scottish or Scotch-Irish.That exercise toward awareness of their religious and ethnic heritage was enough to change the conversation about the “other.”
The history of the church in the United States that started with the folks who first brought the Presbyterian tradition with them is a complicated one. It’s a history that intersects the pursuit of religious freedom, of economic and social development and of political openness. It’s a history that speaks of slavery and the abolitionist movement. It’s a history that speaks of colonization and the radical pursuit of social justice.
For the past 300 years, the story of Presbyterians in the United States has been the story of immigration — refugees, asylum seekers, residents — both permanent and temporary, properly visaed travelers and undocumented sojourners. And this ongoing story is what should be compelling not just to Presbyterians, but to all Christians in the United States, to go deeper and farther in the conversation about immigration. Immigration is not simply the story of 11 million undocumented immigrants who live, work, contribute, worship, minister and serve alongside all of us today; it is the story of Christianity in the United States. It is not simply an issue to tackle. It is a central identity of the Christian faith on this continent.
God Chose to Become a Refugee
The angel of God, the messenger of all that is holy, came to Joseph in a dream and told him to get up and go. Go to Egypt. Get your family to safety. Do not hesitate, or it will be too late. Herod is too dangerous, the Empire too powerful. Go, and find refuge in Egypt. Are you hearing this: it was God’s will for Joseph, Mary and Jesus to become undocumented, asylum-seeking refugees.
The Work Ahead
In 1944, Rev. Howard Thurman co-founded this country’s first integrated, interfaith congregation, right here in San Francisco. He went on to serve as an advisor for Dr. King, a Dean of Howard University’s chapel and a prolific author. These are his words: “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
What work will you do to usher in more life in this new year?
The Congregation responds with hymn “Jesus Entered Egypt” words by Adam Tice, from the new PC(USA) hymnal, Glory to God.
 The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, 1916, accessed online at <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken> (January 2., 2018)
 Annie Karni, “Wahsington’s Growing Obsession with the 25th Amendment” Politico, accessed online at <https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/03/trump-25th-amendment-mental-health-322625>
 Amaury Tañón-Santos, “On Immigration” in Presbyterian Today, December 2017, accessed online at <https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/1217-faith-culture/> (Jan. 2, 2017)
 Howard Thurman, ”The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations, 1985.