This week Matthew Hufford, son of Beth and Joe Hufford, came by to see me. Matthew is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. He is working as a health care educator and has a program with 30 mothers that he visits in their homes to evaluate the children’s physical and cognitive development and to teach them how to best care for the children. He also supported the women in a small business project, securing funds to purchase sewing machines as an avenue for income. Matthew is having a great experience and learning a whole lot in the process about himself and about the world. But it has not been easy or without pain. Matthew stands out – everyone in his village and the surrounding villages know and talk about the gringo. Because he stands out, he was robbed at knife point in a nearby city. Matthew is an outsider and because of that was at first met by the community with much resistance. It did not matter that he had a college degree and had a lot of experience, he was an outsider.
Today is Epiphany Sunday, Tuesday is Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas when we celebrate the Magi coming to visit the Christ child bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi arrived in Bethlehem, about a year after his birth, to visit the Christ family in their home. Jesus would have been toddling around, getting into everything, and babbling away. Scripture does not tell us how many Magi came some believe as many as 12, but they traveled with a caravan of many servants.
Magi were high ranking government officials known for their wisdom and knowledge. They maintained a place of prominence and significance in the eastern world. Magi are found in the books of Jeremiah and Daniel advising King Nebuchadnezzar. They were especially gifted in astrology which in ancient times included both the reading of the stars, and what we call astronomy, the study of the stars. Magi interpreted dreams and functioned as priests in Zoroastrianism overseeing the religious rituals. They were from Persia which is now Iraq. When Jews were forced into exile to Babylon the Jews and Zoroastrians lived in community together and became familiar with each other’s religions. However, even though Zoroastrians were monotheistic like the Jews, the Jews regarded their practices as superstitious and deceptive, they were outsiders, and not easily trusted.
Imagine a famous religious person like the Dalai Lama coming to our town with an entourage for a few days – everybody would sit up and pay attention, everyone would be talking about the monk wearing robes surrounded by bald little monks all wearing their robes. They would stand out wherever they went – walking down the street, cars would slow down trying to get a glimpse of them. In restaurants people would begin to talk about how and what they ate. The Jessamine Journal would publish an article saying that the Dalai Lama came looking for a baby born to a Christian family that he was certain is the son of God. – Imagine. While the Dalai Lama is widely respected and sought after around Buddhist topics, if he were to venture into “our territory,” I am absolutely certain, he would meet much resistance by the Christian community, especially ministers, leaders and Bible scholars.
It would have been similar for the Magi. The Wise men observed the Messiah’s star at its rising, got their caravan packed up and took off to find the “king of the Jews” – but they were not Jews. Not knowing exactly where to find the newborn king, they traveled to Jerusalem, the capital and center of Judaism, to get more information. When they arrived in the city of Jerusalem, they headed to the Temple to learn more. Maybe they expected the Jews to be just as excited as they were but only Herod seemed excited.
All their lives, the Jews had heard stories of God’s promise to send “a ruler who would shepherd the people.” For generations, the job of the chief priests and scribes was to teach the people how to read the signs of God. This was the moment they had been studying and waiting for, but the Jewish priests, scribes and faithful leaders were comfortable. Things were going well for them. They served God by studying Scripture and teaching and worshipping, but they were not in need of a Savior. There was no desire to “rock the boat” and so when the famous outsiders came to town asking about a Savior, they ignored them as best they could and continued in their comfortable lives – the Magi weren’t even Jewish.
While we do not talk about it much, the same was true of the women’s and the civil rights movements. Women and Black people who had, what they perceived to be, a good life did not want to “rock the boat.” People who did not directly feel oppression or discrimination, or at least to a degree that made them uncomfortable, did not want to do anything to jeopardize the life that they enjoyed. They did not want to lose whatever position they had, their status or their reputation in the community. If things were not great, they certainly did not want to rouse the beast and make things worse. They wanted to keep their heads down and continue the life that they knew and maintain any comforts they enjoyed. They could not envision the possibility of a better life for other people. The fight for justice is always led by people who perceive that they have nothing to lose, people who are suffering under the weight of oppression, people on the margins of society – outsiders. People in need of salvation.
In the Gospel of Luke, the first people to receive the message of the birth of Christ were shepherds, the lowliest in society, the ones literally living on the edge of society – outsiders. They were not living comfortable, stable lives or enjoying power and prestige. Shepherds were poor and generally distrusted by society. They had nothing to lose and were in fact in need of saving.
In Matthew, the first people to receive the message that the Christ child was born were Gentiles, the Magi, who although regarded highly by some, were considered with much suspicion by Jews –outsiders.
Christ had been born, a time of liberation and a new possibility was upon the people. Tragically, the news preordained the inevitability that things would change only for those who had nothing to lose. The magi came searching for a newborn king bearing gifts to celebrate his birth. They came to worship him sacrificing time and reputation. They did not want to miss the opportunity – it was written in the stars – this was a once in a lifetime occasion.
We all know that God comes in unexpected ways at unexpected times and to unexpected people. Scripture tells us that over and over, life tells us that over and over – but I don’t think that knowing that is enough. The Chief Priests and Scribes spent their lives studying Scripture and teaching about the faith and yet they not only missed visiting the Christ child, they were the first to question Jesus’ authority and the first to shout, “Crucify him.”
I do believe that study is important, that prayer is important, that being part of a community of faith where we grow and share and learn together is important – but it is not enough – it is not enough. We also must be somehow connected with people on the margins – the outsiders, the ones who need to be saved. We need to listen to those who have nothing to lose so that those of us who have everything to lose, those of us who are quite comfortable in our lives, won’t miss an opportunity to experience Christ in the world.
Matthew Hufford has been living as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru for over a year now. He lives on the equivalent of $300 a month – the same as the people in his community. It is a 16 hour bus trip to Lima. He is speaking Spanish every day, all day long. He is working with and learning from the mothers in his program. He is enjoying the beauty of Peru and the beauty of the culture. He said that while he loved coming home to see his family and friends, it confirmed for him that nothing has changed here – things are the same as the day he left. So he is requesting to serve an additional year in Peace Corps Service. The life that Matthew is living is simple, but life changing. Matthew has little to lose right now. He does not own much, he does not have status or power, he has chosen to live as an outsider. If God were to call him through angels or stars or in a dream to a new experience of Christ – it would be easy for Matthew to go.
And so here at the beginning of 2015, I wonder how I can be ready to go if God calls. I am reading the Bible from start to finish this year. I will read and study specific texts alongside you, my church. I will try to stay in active contact with people on the margins and I will look for ways to simplify my life so that I do not have stuff keeping me from experiencing the holy – keeping me from an experience of a lifetime.
After Matthew said that everything seems the same here in KY, I thought about 2014. A lot happened in 2014 in this church: We welcomed the preschool and grew into our relationship with the Slavic Evangelical church of Faith. The middle schoolers traveled to Eastern KY and the high schoolers went to Guatemala. We journeyed through the church calendar and celebrated all the holy days as usual and worshipped in some new ways as well. We studied 1 Corinthians, we ate together a lot, we laughed together, we cried together and we sat together. We did all the usual stuff like God and Country Picnic and Holiday Marketplace. We said goodbye to some very special people and journeyed with each other through some painful times. We welcomed new people to the world and to our church family. A lot changed and a lot stayed the same for Providence Christian Church in 2014. And it is the regular stuff that gets us through, that gives us a foundation for life. I don’t think we would get much done without that foundation.
But Jesus does make our lives more comfortable. Jesus does not help us fit in and succeed in the way our culture defines. We cannot be at ease in world that is NOT committed to Jesus – that is not willing to leave comforts and security in order to encounter the divine.
It is a new year, we have celebrated the birth of our Lord. We have come together to honor and worship him and now it is time to leave this secure and comfortable place and go back out into the world. Nothing is the same now and, like the Magi, we have to decide what road we will take from here. Will we take the road that leads back to Herod and the comforts of status quo or will we have the courage to take an unfamiliar road and go home a different way.