Preached at: Church of St. Mary the Virgin, NYC
A few years ago, while on pilgrimage in Great Britain, I had the opportunity of taking in a meal at The Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford. While the food was good, the actual reason for visiting The Eagle and Child was that it was a regular meeting place for a literary group known as “The Inklings,” of which authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were members. Sitting in a cramped corner of this pub I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I was sitting at a table where Lewis and Tolkein might have sat, discussing literature, philosophy, religion, and theology. One of my favorite poems from Tolkein’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings kept playing over and over in my head. It begins:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.[i]
Indeed, this became my own personal mantra for the pilgrimage: “Not all those who wander are lost!”
While praying on this theme for tonight’s homily, I turned to the dictionary as I often do, to see what all the meanings of the word ‘wander’ encapsulate. The first definition might be synonymous with rambling: ‘to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal.’ I do not imagine that inhabitants of this amazingly busy city of New York do much rambling. There are places to go, people to see, business to be done—all of which require a strategy for moving about these crowded streets. If there are ramblers, they might be personified as tourists—folks that seem to wander about the city with their heads pointed up at the iconic skyscrapers or down at their phones trying to navigate where they are going.
“Now is the moment to wake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is near.” I don’t know about you some days it’s easier to wake up than others. Sometimes, when the alarm clock goes off I think, surely it can’t be that time already? But there are other days when the anticipation of a new day makes it hard to get to sleep at all. Eyes pop open even before it’s time and you’re filled with energy and enthusiasm. I suppose it usually has something to do with what’s in front of me that makes the difference.
And this is just the time of year when the Church points us to what’s ahead. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” In this very first week of Advent, Jesus tells us to be ready for the unexpected day of the Lord. He gives vivid examples.
St. Margaret of Scotland
From time to time I make the mistake of comparing my journey to the journeys of others. The stories of those I meet for whom Jesus has been a life-long companion or for whom God has been the object of many, many years of devoted searching, these are the stories that arrest me and leave me tempted to see myself in an unworthy light.
For I did not grow up in the conscious company of Jesus, and my path into the faith was something I unexpectedly tripped over one day in some field of my heart. No years of devotion or study prepared me to meet him there, but I quickly sold all that I had to buy that field of heart.
I can see now what a mistake it has been of me to entertain those episodes of self-pitying comparison, however, because we see them both affirmed in this morning’s gospel. Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and then spells out two different ways one might approach the life of faith—two paths to the same kingdom.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
These wise men who had come from the East, who are they? The New Testament Greek name for them is “magi,” which means magicians, fortune tellers, wizards. [i] The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that they reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew its significance, and followed it.[ii]
The wise men came from “the East,” but whether that is near East, or middle East, or far East is only a guess. St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, believed the three magi came from Yemen because, in those days, the Kings of Yemen were Jews. A very early Armenian tradition neither saw them as Jews nor as starting out together but rather meeting up along the way, each of them a king from a foreign realm, each of them following this star: one named Balthazar, a king from Arabia; another was Melchior, a king from Persia; and a third, Gaspar, a king from India. I am speaking of three magi, but we are actually not told how many wizards came to Bethlehem. Three is just a guess: three kings because of the three gifts so no one comes empty handed. The gifts were of gold, the most precious mineral on the earth[iii]; frankincense, a symbol of prayer, as the psalmist says, “let my prayer like incense be”[iv]; and myrrh, the fragrance of heaven, used in the anointing for healing and also in the anointing of the dead (ultimately Jesus’ own body).[v]
Our lesson from the Book of Genesis recalls Jacob on his deathbed. To listen to him recounting his life, claiming his lineage with Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, in the presence of his sons, and naming the ancestral ground on which he wants to be buried is quite beautiful. This is noble, faithful Jacob at the end of his life. But this is not the picture of Jacob in is younger years: Jacob, the schemer and the cheat, who behaved so disreputably with his very family. The psalmist remembers Jacob: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” But in the verses before that, the psalmist speaks quite biographically about Jacob, “Though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”[i] In his younger years, Jacob’s ambitious, disreputable life had come toppling down, and then, over his lifetime, he was rescued by God.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, writes about our conversion being lifelong. Lifelong conversion can seem onerous and full of duty and repentance on our part.[ii] I am daily reminded of my own need for ongoing conversion. I am a work-in-progress, and there’s plenty of work to be done. You, too, may know about this. But lifelong conversion also comes with the hope that God is at work in our lifetime, going back in our past, undoing, remaking, redeeming, reforming what was lost, spent, and misdirected. Father Benson speaks the comforting words, that “we cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” God draws us on. Which is clearly the picture of Jacob, and a hope for us.
[i] Psalm 46:1-4.
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824–1915).
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told in great detail where the Apostle Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, a very detailed itinerary during just one season of his life. Why? The Apostle Paul has been traveling with Silas in Syria and Cilicia. They went on to Derbe, then met up with Timothy in Lystra, then to Phrygia, then Galatia. (Why? Because they could not go to Asia.) Then opposite Mysia, they attempted to enter Bithynia, (but were forbidden) so they went down to Troas… and then, because Paul had a dream, they set off to Macedonia… and on and on it goes. Why? Why are we given this endless travelogue? Three reasons.
The most obvious reason is the very reason we do this. If there’s someone we know and love who has been away from us traveling, we want to know all about it. “Where did you go?” “What did you see?” “Who did you meet?” “What impressed you the most?” We want to get current with people we love who have been away from us.
A second reason is that Saint Paul’s readers were an oppressed and persecuted minority. They needed the encouragement that their faith in Jesus was catching fire. If you are suffering, and there’s no immediate remedy for your suffering, the next best thing is to know you are not alone. So the story, this travelogue, is told for the sake of others’ encouragement.
As they went. Not at the moment Jesus spoke. Not at the moment they met the priests. As they went. As they followed Jesus’ invitation. As they did the next thing asked, as they journeyed. As they went, they were healed. Healing may happen in motion, in process, as we go, as we live, as we follow. During a short walk or over a long journey. At a particular point in time or as a process into which we receive glimpses of insight.