Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
1st Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
2nd Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
In 1999 I did my internship in Oakland, California, at Resurrection Lutheran Church. I met a lot of new people there, almost daily. This church did a lot of community organizing and I remember one of the organizers asking me, “Where's home?” This was a confusing question for me. He meant, “Where are you from?” but to me it went a lot deeper than that. My mom had just sold the home I grew up in and moved to Eastern Oregon. My parents had been divorced about 4 years by then, but, although I encouraged it, it hadn't entirely sunk in. Berkeley wasn't exactly home at that point. We lived in a tiny little seminary apartment that absorbed all the light. It was like a dark cave in there. Internship was going well, but I wasn't exactly comfortable there. I couldn't have told you where home was in that instant so I made some awkward paragraph-long answer to a very simple question. I finally settled on the notion that home was where my husband was.
Where's home? That might be a question that the wise ones heard again and again on their journey. They were wise. They were wealthy. They had resources to travel. They had comforts. They had a home in the east. Yet, somehow it wasn't enough. There was something more they were seeking. Their readings of the stars told them that something amazing was happening that they wouldn't want to miss, something that might redefine home, so they set out from all their books and friends and charts and telescopes to find this new king.
For Jesus, home was also hard to define. As his family traveled to Egypt to escape King Herod, they were probably asked this question many times. Were they afraid to answer for fear they would be found? Did their travels early in Jesus' life affect him as an adult, make him the traveling Messiah that he became? Where was home? Was it in Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Egypt? During Jesus' ministry was it Galilee, Capurnaum, or Jerusalem?
A home for a king ought to be in a castle, right? That's what the wise ones were thinking. So they went to Herod's castle to find the King of the Jews. Instead they found Herod, placed there by the Emperor, to do the Emperor's bidding, to keep control. Herod directs his scribes to comb the scriptures for hints about where the Messiah will be born. They find it in the book of Micah. Bethlehem is the answer. Bethlehem doesn't seem like a likely place for a king to be born, when you'd expect him to come from the castle, nearby in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is humble and quiet. It is a place where shepherds are born. It seems unexpected for a king to be born there, but it did happen once before. King David was also born in Bethlehem and chosen there from amongst his brothers, although he was the youngest, to shepherd the people of Israel. It makes me wonder if the cave or barn in which Jesus was born was one that David had been in. Maybe the shepherds who saw and heard the angel's announcement on Christmas were in one of the same fields that David used to frequent as a shepherd.
David knew what it was like to be without a home, camping in the outdoors, keeping watch over the sheep. He knew what it was like to lose all sense of home, having offended God by taking Bathsheba as his wife after sending her husband to the front lines to die. And he tried to establish a home for God, building a temple to worship, a place he could reliably find God. Which made it very difficult when the temple was destroyed. Where was God's home then? The whole book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament is devoted to that topic. Ezekiel saw a vision of a burning wheel with eyes all over it. It was a vision of a mobile God, still with the people even though they were far from home and even though God's home had been destroyed. Where was home for the exiles? Where was home for God?
And where is home for us, these days? Families live increasingly apart. We move much more frequently than we did 50 years ago. We change jobs a lot. We relocate. Just before Christmas I visited several homebound members whose family members rarely visit them. It was apparent they had to move from their own homes, but some were moved halfway across the US to be near to their children. They have left all their friends behind. They have almost no one, aside from a few caregivers. Where is home for them? Where is home for any of us?
I have been in some pretty fancy houses that didn't feel very comfortable. It made me wonder if it ever felt like home. And I've camped out in the woods and felt very much at home. Maybe home is less of a place and more of a state of mind. Maybe we could think of home as an experience of the presence of God.
The wise ones had their own religion, their own way of life, yet everything they were reading in the stars pointed them toward something more. They were having an experience of God, there in their own country, in the east. But they wanted to come see for themselves the source of this wonder and joy they were experiencing. God was at once everywhere and in a specific place, in a specific person, this child to which the star led them. They were having an experience of God back home, but God had more to show them than they could see and experience at home. They gathered provisions for a long journey. I doubt travel by camel is very comfortable. They certainly encountered many different kinds of people on their way. Some were likely kind and generous. Others were probably not so friendly. They put themselves at great risk on this journey. Maybe it taught them more about relying on God. Maybe they encountered God each day in the different people they met, in beggars, and fellow travelers, refugees, and so forth. Maybe they noticed the presence of God more because they were out of their ordinary day to day routines. Sometimes you have to leave home to find it.
The Israelites found repentance and a reclaiming of their story during the time they were captive in Babylon, when Ezekiel was writing. They made a home in their new land and then found their home again when they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt. David found his home again as he kept up his relationship with God, as he repented and continued to converse with God and worship God, even though he was ashamed of his previous behavior, even though he would rather have hid away. He found that even though he made mistakes, God was still with him, guiding and loving him and blessing him and correcting him.
Jesus seemed never to stay in one place for long. This is a testament to the availability and mobility of God. He didn't have a home in the sense of having a house, but he made his home among the people, and not the rich and powerful but ordinary everyday people, the poor and sick, women and children, tax collectors, fishermen, and so on. Our home, the presence of God in Jesus, traveled around in this world, even going beyond the grave to be with those who died, and then going on to the heavenly realm where we will all someday be united in the full presence of God.
For us now, home as the presence of God is anywhere the hungry are fed, where the sick find healing, where the lonely are visited, where malaria nets or warm quilts are distributed, where we share all we have, where we are kind and loving and generous, where all are included despite differences. Home isn't a place where we go, it is a place we make when we get out of our comfort zones, when we interact with people different from us, when we take a risk, we volunteer our talents and gifts, when we do something unexpected, when we let go of our own ideas of how thing should go, when we follow God's light and shining star despite the unlikelihood that anything good could ever be found by its glow.
Today we celebrate Epiphany, a festival day in the church calendar. The word epiphany means “Showing forth.” We may associate the word with an “ah-ha!” moment, the moment we finally get it. Today the star is illuminating the way to the infant Jesus, to the Messiah for the wise-ones, the foreigners. At the moment, we may or may not get it. But God is here just the same, illuminating our lives, showing us a better way. The presence of God is here. It always has been and always will be. That hasn't changed. But maybe something in us will change as we leave our homes, our comforts and possessions and strike out in search of something more, the state of mind that shows us that God is our home, that we are always welcome, and then help prepare that home to welcome others on an similar search.