For some reason, the journey of the Magi, observed liturgically the Sunday of Epiphany (tomorrow, January 6th), always puts me in mind of geocaching and other forms of high tech recreational travel. I always imagine the wise men traveling from "the East" and arriving at Jerusalem employed some form of celestial navigation--or "astronavigation"--to find the "child who has been born king of Jews" (Matthew 2:1). Celestial navigation would have used "sights," angular measurements between a celestial body (in this case a star) and the visible horizon, to arrive at their destination. Today, with satellites orbiting strategically around the globe, many of us accomplish a similar task with GPS devices.
In my imagination, the search for the child Messiah was the mother of all geocaching trips. The only thing wrong with my imagination- the wise men used the star to help them know the time of the birth of the child, but not the location. For the location, the wise men had available to them the same prophetic books as the Jews, and even Herod himself. They read the prophecy to Herod, "‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel" (Matthew 2:6).
At this point in the Epiphany story, the star does actually become a guide. Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem. "When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy" (Matthew 2:9-10). So my imagination is not totally corrupted. The wise men are wise beyond wise. They use an ancient text (the Hebrew scriptures) together with modern techniques (astronavigation following a moving star) to make their way to Bethlehem.
It's quite the drama, really. It's inspiring.
New tech comes with new times. Last week, for part of our Christmas vacation, I skied at Copper Mountain, Colorado. The lift attendants ushering skiers to the chairlift scan your ski pass with little scan guns that sound like futuristic lasers, like from the Jetsons. I think they use the same scanners at the Walton Arts Center.
In any event, the lift attendant who scanned my ticket asked, with bouncy enthusiasm, "How are you doing today?" Of course I was doing great. I was skiing. I asked back, "How are you?" His reply blew me away with its authenticity and joy. "I'm living the dream, man, living the dream. At least my dream, anyway."
The thing about Copper Mountain employees, at least most of them really are doing what they love. They want to live in those mountains, near those slopes, among those people. Many it seems would rather ski than eat.
I learned this was true, literally, when I attended worship at the top of the mountain Sunday noon. Copper Mountain Community Church offers Sunday worship at the bottom of the mountain at 8:30 a.m. Sunday mornings. The pastors then spend the morning distributing bags of cookies to employees at all the lifts and restaurants and safety stations around the resort, ending their morning of skiing and cookie love with a mountain top chapel service at 12:30. They take joy at the beginning of worship in describing their ministry, which is new to most of us who are simply there on vacation.
Their ministry is inspiring. The pastors have found some beautiful ways to do vibrant and faithful ministry with people who work as service staff at the resort. One way they do this is by organizing a free community meal once a month, strategically timed the day before paychecks are issued. By this time, many of the Copper employees are short on cash, even hungry. A few hundred folks show out for the monthly meal.
This ministry puts me in mind of the wise men. The wise men were far from home, out of place. They would have, along the way, had occasion to pay for guest lodging, purchase food from vendors, perhaps employ translators to speak with border guards and politicians. Jesus and Joseph and Mary are themselves soon to be displaced to Egypt fleeing for safety from Herod. Put a bit of realistic flesh on the story, and you start to see all the ways that wealth, and culture, and class, and more are all juxtaposed and vivid in the visit of the wise men to the child King.
Perhaps in this Epiphany season there are some simple lessons to be learned. For one, be mindful towards and caring of those who serve you as you go about your day. Do not take your waiter, or custodian, or ticket attendant, for granted. They are real people. For another, when you travel, you are both guest and one bearing gifts. You bring something to give--new knowledge, a gentle smile, frankincense. Third, the strangers in our midst often understand us better than we understand ourselves. The great gift of hosting refugees, immigrants, foreigners, is both the opportunity to get to know them on their own terms, and to learn more about ourselves in the encounter.
One last story. We tried to eat at Cherry Berry today in the strip mall near Joyce and College. Sadly, it has closed. In the turn to a new year, one special prayer I have is for all business owners in their struggle to make a good living.
There is, however, a new frozen yogurt shop at the intersection of Crossover and Mission--3 Crazy Berries. Forlorn and sad over the closing of Cherry Berry, our household sought refuge there this afternoon, and were amazed. The owner and proprietor knows his custard. Their product is from Russellville, Arkansas, and he was quite proud to describe how the machinery works, what makes a good custard, and more. Spending a bit of time chatting and eating there reminded me what a joy it is to get to know the people who own and operate our local businesses. It makes me proud to call them neighbors.
Something of this pride, this joy, this care, is evoked each time I read of those wise men who traveled so very far to meet the Christ. The local and the distant, the foreign and the familiar, the secular and the sacred, all are tied together somehow, in an arc of justice, joy, and peace. Epiphany blessings to you and yours.
You can read more about the Copper Mountain ministry at my blog, http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2012/12/high-altitude-christmas-worship-on-skis.html
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Simultaneously published as the religion column in the Saturday edition of the Northwest Arkansas Times.