Summit Presbyterian Church
January 8, 2016
Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany)
Honor and Respect
I spent New Year’s in the Capital Region of New York State, near Albany. The first baby of 2017 in the Capital Region was born one minute past midnight, at the Bellevue Woman’s Center in Niskayuna, New York. She was born to Maryam Ally-Santos and Richard Santos of Cohoes, New York. Her name is Amanah, which means trust in Arabic, and she was exactly 8 pounds and 18 inches long. Her due date was January 4 and her parents expected her to be overdue, as she was a first baby for them. But they were happy about the timing: “It’s awesome,” said her mother. “It’s something we’re going to celebrate every year.” “It’s a cool story for her,” said Richard. He added her birth was a special moment for everyone, including the staff, with people shouting Happy New Year in the hall as she was born; all the reporters were invited to sign the Baby Book. I learned through the Niskayuna paper that Richard Santos is an IT specialist at IBM and breeds award-winning American Bullies — a bull dog terrier breed — and that Maryam runs a non-profit clothing line called, “The Hijab Movement.” She was wearing a hijab in the photos and I noticed her husband was wearing an Hijab Movement t-Shirt; on their Facebook page I learned the Hijab Movement fights stereotypes and raises money for local food pantries and other charities. Maryam’s family is from Tanzania and her parents still live there, so in 21st century fashion they first saw their new granddaughter through a video-conference.
Two thousand years ago another baby was born at a propitious time. He was also honored by people who lived far away; Magi from East of Jerusalem who were guided by a star, drawn by the power and mystery of God’s call. Nothing but divine prompting could have compelled such a journey to visit a baby born “King of the Jews,” a kingdom under the power of Rome, hardly a player on the world stage. They must have been surprised to learn the baby had no relation to the current King, Herod, and puzzled when they saw him at such a humble home in Bethlehem. But they were overwhelmed with joy when they saw where the star had stopped. They entered and paid him homage, which means to honor and show deep respect. Then they opened their treasure chests. Precious gold, befitting a “king,” frankincense to symbolize divinity, and myrrh, which was used for anointing. Developmentally inappropriate gifts, but theologically correct.
But it wasn’t just the Magi showing honor and deep respect on that long-ago night. For when God came to us as a baby, a human baby, God honored all of us — creatures made in God’s image. From the journey through the birth canal to his journey to the cross, from his flight into Egypt to his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus experienced human joy and sorrow, human struggle and love, everything except sin, honoring our human lives. He also honored and showed deep respect for other humans: his disciples, for those who were poor, or in prison or hungry - for all called “the least of these,” in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus taught and healed, offered bread and hospitality. Finally, Jesus offered his life and the gift of divine forgiveness to all people. The Magi kneeled before the Christ child, but the honor and respect were mutual.
On this Sunday when we celebrate the Epiphany, we’re also called to kneel before the Christ child in worship, like the Magi. Jesus the Christ as God incarnate is the only one in human form worthy of our ultimate loyalty, as the Divine Creator and Sustainer of the universe. But if we wish to honor and show deep respect for God, we must also honor and respect each other and ourselves, as God has honored us. In these days when hate speech of all kinds is on the rise, when there’s talk of a Muslim registry, when refugees are reviled and starving children around the world are ignored, we have much to learn from the Magi. The Magi followed the star and recognized the holy light in a babe of a country and faith and people who were not their own. When they saw him they shared generously of their treasure. And when they were ready to go home, after being enlightened in a dream, they took care not to collaborate with the king who sought to destroy the child, no matter the collateral killing. They left for their own country by another road, and the holy family fled to safety in Egypt.
So we follow the Magi and honor God by recognizing the sacred image in all people, through our words and actions. By celebrating the birth of every child, born at the beginning of the New Year - like Amanah - or at end, and anytime in between. Born in our country or in a land far to the east or the west. Born to Christian parents, or Muslim parents, or parents who may not claim any faith. Girl or boy, rich or poor, from any kind of family. We honor God by sharing our treasure and working for a world where all children have enough food, a safe and loving home, medical care, education. Where all children may grow up in peace, protected from the violence of rulers or the ruled. And we honor God by refusing to collaborate with the Herods of this world who wish harm to others, even if it means going home by another road. For the divine light and the divine way has been revealed to us, and it is the way of love, honor and respect for all peoples.