January 6, 2008
The Epiphany A
Matthew 2:1-12

O God: lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence. Amen.

My roommate has been on a bit of a Pirates of the Caribbean jag here lately. Between me and you, I think it may secretly be a Johnny Depp jag and not a Pirates of the Caribbean jag – she’s also seen Sweeny Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lately… But around our house, it’s been the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies over and over. A couple of times this week I’ve had opportunities to sit down with my friend to watch these movies with her. I’d never seen them before.

To be honest, I didn’t really think I’d enjoy them, but I’ve been surprised to find how much I have. There’s plenty of action, the stories are at least entertaining… But surprisingly, the aspect that I’ve found most captivating is the beautiful, poetic, and often ironic symbolism in almost every scene. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp’s character), is the pirate on whom the series centers. He’s a true pirate, with all of the negative baggage that such a designation implies; but, he’s not without his own endearing qualities. Sure he’s chronically dirty and unconcerned by customs of propriety… But he’s also playful, clever, and even somewhat lovable in a goofy sort of way.

As I was watching these movies with my roommate – a way of preparing myself for this Feast of the Epiphany – I was fascinated to learn of Captain Jack’s compass. Every sailor carries a compass, even the villainous pirates. But Jack’s compass was different. It didn’t point north. Occasionally it would fall into the hands of people who didn’t understand the point of a compass that doesn’t point north. They would assume it was broken and toss it aside. But Jack would always keep its secrets to himself. His compass wasn’t intended to point north. Instead, it pointed to that which is most desired by the one who holds it.

We should all be so lucky! Imagine if you had a device to direct you at all times to where you most wanted to be! I’d bet we’d all be at least a little surprised about where we would end up.

I wonder if the wise men of today’s gospel lesson were at all surprised about where they had ended up. When we think of them, we sing “We Three Kings”, but more than likely the stories about the Magi refer to a sect of Persian astrologers. They believed that their interpretations of the stars announced the birth of a new king of the Jews. Though they were not Jewish, they set out in search of this king to pay him homage. They headed west – the direction of the Jews. It’s natural that they would have tried Jerusalem first. If you’re in the first century and looking for a king of the Jews, Jerusalem is a good place to start. It was the seat of political and religious power for ancient Israel. But when they got there, they must have been surprised. They didn’t find the baby for whom their predictions had said that they were searching. Instead, they found a city filled with people who knew nothing of their news.

We’ve all had moments like that in our own lives – moments when we realized that our journey didn’t take us where we had expected to go. We had followed all of the signs that we could see to the best of our abilities, and yet… We still didn’t end up where we thought we would be.

Perhaps a relationship ended up less “happily ever after” than we had initially dreamed that it might. Perhaps added responsibilities at work seem less worth the additional money than we had initially expected.

But those unexpected detours don’t have to lead to disappointment. For Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean the unexpected detours that he found in route to his heart’s desire led to unimaginable adventures. For the Magi, their unexpected adventures led to a king unlike any that they could have imagined.

When have your detours, or maybe even roadblocks, led you to unexpected reward?

Last year, I had the great opportunity to travel to Jerusalem during Holy Week and Easter. I was there to study Orthodox liturgies of the season as a student of St. George’s College, a ministry of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Or at least that’s what I thought I was there for. One day, we traveled together as a class to visit Bethlehem. The drive from the college in East Jerusalem to Bethlehem took a little over an hour. But as we were driving, our professor reminded us that Bethlehem was only six miles away.

We had all heard about the “security fence” that was being erected between Israel and Palestine, but few of us had considered the logistical and psychological impact that such a structure would have on the people it was meant to exclude. As we approached this “fence” we could see that it wasn’t really a fence at all – it was a 25-foot tall concrete wall. Upon completion it is expected to reach 403 miles long, making it more than four times as long and more than twice the average height of what was the Berlin Wall in Germany. It snakes through the countryside of Palestine, often separating individuals from their families or jobs and communities from their sources of fresh water.

When we reached Bethlehem, we found a depressed community. The wall that now encloses it has already choked the little town’s fragile economy. Most of the stores and restaurants are closed and the once-bustling streets are now almost empty. Dependent on the money spent by Christian pilgrims in their journeys to the Church of the Nativity, the town has withered in the wake of a wall that is little more than an inconvenience to pilgrims who now have to drive 40 miles and sit through an Israeli checkpoint if they are to visit. Too many decide that it’s simply not worth the trouble.

Seeing that wall was an epiphany for me. I had traveled those thousands of miles to Jerusalem in the hope of experiencing Easter in the land of Jesus. To my surprise, however, I also found Christ in a new way. As I witnessed the suffering of the poor and the excluded, I was moved with compassion. I had been taught to fear Arabic people and particularly Palestinians. But when I met them, and talked with them, and saw how they lived, I could see their humanity.

The miracle of the Incarnation is not just that Jesus was God, but that Jesus was human. Whenever we allow ourselves to be open to the human-ness of another we come closer to encountering Christ.

I found Christ in the face of a woman selling trinkets at the base of a giant wall that now separates her from her former livelihood.

I found Christ in myself as I allowed myself to be moved with compassion for the suffering of unknown and unheard outcasts.

When have your detours led you to Christ?

We are in the season of epiphanies. If you allow yourself to really consider the incarnation of God among us, you will undoubtedly be surprised by the ways that you encounter Christ.

Wise men traveled to Jerusalem in search of a king. To their surprise, they ended up in Bethlehem, overwhelmed with joy at the sight of Jesus.

Be open to the detours and surprises that lie ahead of you. You may find them to be epiphanies of Christ. Amen.