The wise men come from the east to pay homage to the one who was born King of the Jews. The story turns to treachery and tragedy so fast in Matthew’s gospel that we scarcely have time to realize that the practitioners of another faith, most likely monotheistic Zoroastrians, travel at great length to honor a person expected to be of importance to the Jewish faith. After the angels warn Joseph in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt, the people of another faith shelter the holy family. Whether this story is historically accurate or not, Matthew’s gospel includes people of different faith traditions in honoring and sheltering Jesus. There is a generosity of spirit and blessing surrounding Jesus’ birth. In Luke’s gospel, wise old Simeon, a man who waited a life-time to see God’s Messiah, holds the baby and praises God saying:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon proclaims that salvation and light are God’s intent for all people. Simeon sees that God-revealing light in Jesus. If, as Simeon declares, God’s desire is to reveal God’s self to all people, then it doesn’t make sense that God would give that revelation to one people and hope that it would get around to all people eventually. Matthew claims that the wise men of another religion saw and rightly interpreted God’s light and honored that light among the people of Israel. And they brought symbolic gifts.
Is it possible that God continues to reveal God’s self to seekers all over the world in many times and places? All of God’s self-revealing is mediated, received, understood, and communicated through human vessels. We might think of it as light that is refracted through a prism, split into a rainbow of colors. One of the coolest things I learned in theater is that light mixes differently from pigment in paint. In paint, the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow which mixed in different combinations can produce green, orange, and purple. The three pigments combined make black. But light is different! The three primary colors of light are red, blue, and green. Combined in different combinations, they produce radiant colors, but if you shine the three primary colors into a single spot, the light is white. So what if some of us see God through a red lens, and some see God through a blue lens, and some see God through a green lens? If we shared our visions, if we combined our light, would we see God’s light more clearly?
About two weeks ago, I was the guest speaker for the dharma talk at the Zen Center’s Wednesday night service. My topic was “Being a Reflective Practitioner,” one of the central themes of the Ministerial and Theological Integration class that I teach in the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, a Catholic institution. I find everything about the last two sentences of this sermon to be an unbelievable honor, as is serving as your pastor. While the rituals may be different in the many denominations of the Christian faith, we all serve the same God. Among the people of other faith traditions, our images of the divine may differ, but our values are the same. I don’t know whether my talk at the Zen Center was meaningful or helpful at all, but the conversation after convinced me that the goal of our different paths is love and compassion.
C.S. Song is a Chinese Christian theologian whose book The Believing Heart invites readers to “harvest the insights of Lao Tzu as much as Anselm and to learn from the Buddha as well as Jesus.” He tells this story:
A long time ago an old woman provided for an ascetic for as long as twenty years. She used to have her twenty-eight-year-old daughter bring meals to him and wait on him.
On day when the young woman brought the meals to the ascetic as usual, she held him in her arms and asked him: “What do you feel?”
The ascetic replied: “Dry wood leaning on a chilly rock with no warmth after three winters.”
When she returned home, she reported to her mother what had taken place.
Hearing what her daughter told her, the old woman became angry and said: “He for whom I have made provisions for twenty years is merely a man with no culture!”
She then drove the ascetic out from the hut and burnt it to the ground.
The moral of the story is that after twenty years the ascetic had not lost his preoccupation with himself. He had not arrived at the wisdom of enlightenment and compassion for the suffering in the world. The goal of asceticism was to return to the world of love and hate and to be a light to men and women submerged in a ‘sea of bitterness.’”
Love and compassion are at the heart of every major world religion. I love this poster that I found years ago with quotes from other religions that mirror the golden rule. It tells me that my Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sufi neighbors share common values with me and that we have gifts to share with one another. We can learn from each other—we need to learn from each other. When we get together as people of faith to share a celebration of gratitude at Thanksgiving each year here on the island, our practices may not allow us to worship together, but we recognize light in one another. Brian McLaren asks how we might live out the gospel of Matthew’s invitation to share our gifts with each other and to shelter or protect each other from harm. It’s a great question. I thought I’d leave you with a love poem from God that comes from Kabir, an Indian poet from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. “Kabir achieved a remarkable synthesis of Hindu, Muslim, and even Christian belief.”
What Kind of God?
What kind of God would He be
if He did not hear the
bangles ring on
as they move the earth
in their sweet
And what kind of god would He be
if a leaf’s prayer was not as precious to creation
as the prayer His own son sang
from the glorious depth
of his soul—
And what kind of God would He be
if the vote of millions in this world could sway Him
to change the divine
that speaks so clearly with compassion’s elegant tongue,
saying, eternally saying:
all are forgiven—moreover, dears,
no one has ever been