Epiphany 2001: Home By Another Way
*Preached at Grace North Church January 7th 2001.*
Among the Hasids there is told a tale where a wealthy and educated merchant enters the synagogue to say his daily prayers. Sitting not far from him is a poor, uneducated cow-herder, who is also there to pray. But instead of the formal liturgy, the merchant overhears the cow-herder saying, "God, I love you so much. I love you so much that if you had some cows, I would watch them for free." Much to the consternation of the merchant, the cow-herder prayed this not once, but over and over. Finally, the merchant exploded at the poor man, right there in the sanctuary.
"No, no, no!" He shouted. "You can't pray like that! You will offend the King of the Universe!" Then the merchant took the liturgy book, and showed the cow-herder where to start, and what to do.
The next day, when the cow-herder came to the synagogue to pray, he had forgotten everything the merchant had told him, and besides, he couldn't read, anyway. He was so discouraged, and so afraid of offending the King of the Universe that he didn't pray at all. He just sat there, feeling sad and inadequate.
That night the King of the Universe visited the merchant in his dreams. "You have stolen something from me which is very precious," God informed him, and the man woke up in a fright and hurried to the synagogue, hoping against hope to find the cow-herder.
Sure enough, the cow-herder was there, weeping, pathetically holding the prayer-book upside down. The merchant pleaded with him to resume his unusual prayers, for his own sake, and perhaps, for the sake of God's cows.
Probably most of us can relate to the cow-herder in the story. We want desperately to do things "right," and are often rudely informed of our error, even when we have the best of intentions.
But probably ALL of us can relate to the Merchant, especially if you have children. Humans like to think there is a right way and a wrong way to do almost anything, and we get very upset if the rules we hold are breached. This is especially true when it comes to religion.
On September fifth of this past year, in fact, the Vatican released a declaration titled "Dominus Jesus," in which the Catholic hierarchy turns the clock back to the 1950s and asserts that any church not in communion with Rome "are not churches in the proper sense," and that members of all "other religions are, objectively speaking, in a gravely deficient situation."
The hubris displayed by this announcement is staggering, for the idea that any human institution deigns to speak for God is arrogant in the extreme. The Religious News Service responded by saying that "the pronouncement...is so pathetic it seems cruel even to notice it. Better to let the belligerent words of Vatican conservatives pass unheard through the sands of reality."
I'm sure glad such an announcement was given to the world now, when we are sophisticated enough to know when someone is speaking through their posterior, and not two thousand years ago, when three priests of one of those "grossly deficient religions" were praying about the import of a new star blazing at them from the western sky.
For if they knew their religion was bogus, perhaps they would not have been so committed to their faith. If they had known Astrology was Satanic, perhaps they would not have invested so much time and to their reading of the skies. If they had known that their seeking of the Ultimate Mystery was in vain, they probably would not have hopped on their camels and braved the arduous journey across the desert.
For the wise men were, by all accounts, Zoroastrians, followers of the great Persian prophet Zoroaster, who taught that there were actually two gods. The God of Light was Ahura Mazda, who was locked in an eternal battle with his evil twin, the God of Darkness, Ahriman. The wise men believed that this great war was being fought for them, that the fate of the universe was on the line, that the battle was real, and the stakes high. They believed that good would eventually win out, and that they had an important role to play to assist Ahura Mazda in this conflict.
For them, evil was real, God was good, and all of nature roiled with the struggle. They read the signs in nature with great interest, praying fervently, and watching carefully for images and portents to give them direction.
Now, historically, the church has interpreted this story to mean that the Christ child had come not just for the Jews, but for the gentiles as well, whom the wise men represented.
But I would like to offer an alternative interpretation, that the Truth is not the property of any one religion, but can be found by all who diligently seek. The Zoroastrian priests in our story today found the Christ child not by Jewish or as-yet-non-existent Christian methods, but by the variety of Astrology taught them by their own religion. It was Zoroastrian religion that led them to follow that star, all the way to the light of the world.
The Gospel does not tell us that these three sages embraced Judaism, or even later, one of the many varieties of Christianity kicking around in the first century. No, they stayed Zoroastrians, and as we read in the last line of our reading today, when they had finished their visit to the newborn King, they went home by another way.
They went home by another way. If our final destination, our ultimate home is in God, and if God truly meets each of us where we are at, then there are many paths to that same great end. For none of us start off in the same place, none of us share exactly the same culture, internal symbology, or psychological makeup. We may all end up in the same place, but we will none of us get there by the same road, even if we are followers of the same religion. Each of us must go home by another way.
And the light of that star shines not just for the Jews, nor only for Zoroastrians, but for all peoples, of every land, every race, every gender, every religion. Some of us will call the Mystery at the Heart of the Universe Jesus, some will call it Shiva, some will call it the Tao, and these days some call it their Higher Power. But it does not matter what you call it, or even how you call it. Whether you are well-versed in a timeless liturgy, or if you simply offer to watch God's cows, it is all the same to the Great Mystery.
The scripture of the native religion of China begins by saying that "the Tao which can be described in words is not the true Tao." And truer words were never spoken. As soon as we try to codify the Great Mystery, we wind up with an idol, not with God. As soon as we say "our way is right and everyone else is wrong" we poison our hearts with arrogance and prove ourselves far from the heart of the mystery which beats in eternity for all beings, calling us all home by diverse and strange paths.
So the next time someone tells you "you are doing it wrong," there is no need to take offense. They have simply revealed more about themselves than about you; and certainly more than they have revealed about God. Do not let them steal the precious gift you bring to God, no matter how strange it may seem to them. Your prayer may not be ancient, but it is held by God in love; your spirituality may be eclectic and seem odd to those who deign to hold the keys of heaven, but do not let them bother you, for your faith is a relationship between you and God, and it belongs to just the two of you.
Pray always, and pray ALL WAYS. When you head home, take the path that is yours. Regardless of what anyone else says, God will meet you there. Let us pray.
God of a million faces, there are as many paths to you as there are travelers. Help us to support each other on our journeys, even when our ways differ, even when our prayers sound strange to each other. For you are the light we all seek, and to which we are all inexorably drawn, like it or not, want it or not, know it or not. You are the ocean, and we are the streams. Guide and comfort us as we flow towards union, in this life, and any other that may be. For we ask this for the sake of that l