By Another Road, Sermon by Pastor Fred
50 years ago our culture was changed by a simple announcement that went against every prevailing norm we accepted as truth. The Surgeon General, against the immense power of the tobacco industry, and, the pleasure of every smoker in the country, came out with the study that would soon issue the first warning, printed on every pack of cigarettes sold in the nation: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” Up until then, cigarette smoking had been on the increase, ever since the dawn of advertising. But every year since 1964, cigarette smokers have steadily declined. The lies that cigarette company’s kept hidden – that they indeed knew that nicotine was addictive and that smoking their product caused cancer – were exposed, and their false and destructive world began to crumble.
At the time, my brothers and sister, along with my cousins, who ranged in age from about 7-12 years old, absorbed this news – as the astute-young-true-believers that we were – and we began to, well, harp on our parents, who were all smokers, that they had to quit, immediately. ‘How can you smoke those things? Don’t you know what you’re doing to your body?’ And, ‘we don’t want you to die!’ When we didn’t get instant results, we took to a stealth campaign of stealing and hiding their packs of cigarettes. That- didn’t go over so well! But, one by one, over the next couple years, they gave up their habit. For their kids. What had been just a normal way of life – my dad smoking with army and work buddies, or my mom with her college friends and neighborhood moms – was let go, and never returned to. They found another way. They traveled “by another road.”
Ever feel your life is guided by a vision or dream, a voice or a friend, in an unlikely, or unusual, way? Or that the one you trusted, the one recognized as the authority, the one held in high esteem, and who has everyone’s trust, is lying to you? The new-born Jesus is surrounded by this exact kind of story, at Epiphany. The Magi, are led by a star on their journey, and then warned in a dream, to return… by another road. And the one in authority, the recognized King of the Jews, Herod the Great, it turns out, is a lying murderer! How can we find our way in the world? Who do we trust to follow, in this life?
Another 50th Anniversary, just last year, was the celebration of “The March on Washington” where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. I didn’t know until just a couple years ago though, that Martin had a brilliant strategist, Mayard Rustin, who was the brains behind organizing the huge turnout along the Washington Mall. It was also Mr. Rustin that was the one who had taught Dr. King the non-violent tactics from the Gandhi movement, which he’d learned firsthand in India. Before he met Rustin, King wasn’t convinced that non-violence was the way to go, but it was probably one of the most important, if not the most important decision, in making Dr. King’s movement a success.
Rustin was, “A master strategist and tireless activist,” who focused on, “civil and economic rights,” and joined and started movements “for peace, human rights, and the dignity of all people,” as his partner of 10 years, Walter Naegle said, in his eulogy for Rustin in 1987. But as an openly gay man, in very homophobic times, he had struggles others didn’t. In his long career, “Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and ﬁred from important leadership positions” because of his sexual identity. Even in 1983, on the 20th Anniversary of the March on Washington, gay activists almost weren’t permitted to speak at the event, because, fellow March on Washington Congressman, Walter Fauntroy, wouldn’t allow it. It took organizers like the National Women’s Organization, and the National Coalition of Black Gays, to convince Corretta Scott King, who had the final say, by using her husband’s own words, about standing against prevailing majority opinion and walking a different road, to finally break through the barrier.
Bayard Rustin followed a star, and a light, that most others could not see, helping to lead Dr. King, and this country, into a more just, and loving, and hopeful age, even in the face of authorities that stood against civil and gay rights. He took a different way, and changed our society and culture.
The Magi who followed the star at its rising, looking for a new-born king, took off toward the west loaded with gifts in their camel-caravan. When they got close, they may have assumed the bright lights of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, was where they would find the king. But, there the light dimmed, and they were almost deceived. Herod, who had conquered Israel some 30 years earlier with the help of Mark Antony, officially received the title, “King of the Jews.” But the road to Jerusalem, and Herod, was a wrong turn.
And so, the disconnect in the story, is that the true king, is a baby, born in a manger. The child is not far away, in neighboring Bethlehem, a sleepy little shepherd’s community, down a less-traveled-by road about 6 miles away. As St. Ambrose once said, “The star is seen by the magi; where Herod is, it is not seen; it is seen again where Christ is, and it shows the magi the way.”
‘Where Herod is, the star is not seen.’ And where Herod, the false king is, death is a constant threat. Herod gave great gifts, like rebuilding the Temple. Herod also terrorized the people, as he did in ordering all the children in Bethlehem, up to age 2 to be killed, in a horrific attempt to strike down Jesus, his royal competition, when he realized the Magi, “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, left for their own country by another road.”
Herod, was what many, once assumed, a divine king and god was, someone who has the power “to give, and to take away.” But the new-born king, Jesus, the anointed one of God, our God, revealed a new way on Epiphany, a new understanding of who God is. God is a giver of life, and forgiver of sins. God brings salvation to all. Even to Magi and Shepherds, and Gentiles. And in God’s son, there is no death at all. He is the light, no darkness can overcome. Lying and murdering, on the other hand, are all on us.
So when the Magi set out again from Jerusalem, “there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The star was not where Herod was, but shone over Bethlehem where Jesus was.
On this day, the Epiphany of Our Lord, that we’re celebrating today, churches in the east, as well as many places in Latin America, also know it as Christmas. Here in Chicago, in Pilsen, many children receive gifts from Los Tres Reyes Magos, and in Humboldt Park there is always a Three Kings Parade down Division Street. On this day we call Epiphany, the Magi brought gifts to baby Jesus, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for kings; frankincense for divinity; and myrrh for burial. All appropriate for Jesus, our king; our anointed Messiah; and our crucified and risen Lord. Celebrating Christmas on January 6th, or 12th, is a counter-cultural festival, a road less traveled, a different way to go, but a most faithful following of the Light, Jesus, our star.
Jesus himself, would only wear royal garb when soldiers mocked him on the cross. He was a king from a little known town of Bethlehem, hidden in the shadows of the spectacular Temple in Jerusalem, Herod rebuilt. But, despite being treated as impostor, arrested, and imprisoned, he changed our culture and our world. He was, and is, the true king. Those earliest of followers of Jesus, before they were ever named Christians, referred to themselves as, followers of The Way. John’s gospel called him, “the way and the truth and the life.”
Despite the lies, and death, that kings, and people in power perpetrate, despite the glitter that comes from stars that crowd magazine covers, despite the soothing voices of media, complicit in the false culture all around us, we follow a different way. We listen to the dreams God gives us, and take the other road – the way leading to Jesus, the creator of a culture of joy, and justice, and amazing grace.