This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.
The text is Matthew 2:1-12.
What is ‘Normal’?
People use this word all the time, as if they knew exactly what it meant. Picky eaters at the dinner table whine, “Mom, why can’t we have normal food for dinner?” Angst-ridden teenagers roll their eyes and moan, “Why can’t I have normal parents?” Meanwhile, their parents are pulling their hair out and screaming, “Why can’t I just have normal children?”
For me, this question of ‘normalcy’ is a vocational one. After college, many of my peers spent their twenties getting established in their respective careers. They worked as real-estate agents, pastors, teachers, reporters, etc. Meanwhile, I went to graduate school for 3 years and then got a job doing laundry for homeless and drug addicted people. Since then, I’ve been a stay-at-home Dad, a philosophy professor, a chaplain in the inner-city, and the pastor of a country church. Through it all, I often ask myself, “Why can’t I be happy in a normal job?”
So I ask again: what is ‘normal’?
Honestly, I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as ‘normal’. It’s an illusion people create, based on what they think other people’s lives are like. But the truth is that most of your neighbors probably feel just as ‘abnormal’ as you do.
There are lots of ways in which a person can be made to feel abnormal. I already mentioned family and work as two big ones. We might feel abnormal because of our mannerisms or our relationships.
We might also be made to feel abnormal because of our spirituality. I find this one especially interesting. I think there are many people who have a very deep and abiding spirituality, but don’t feel comfortable in church. Their relationship with God finds its expression in their enjoyment of the natural world, their study of the sciences, their pursuit of social justice, or their artistic endeavors. I think the sad fact is that too many of these people don’t recognize their own activities as genuine expressions of faith.
For these people, and for anyone else who feels ‘not normal’ in any way, I have good news this morning: you are one of the Magi.
The Magi were an interesting group of people. Church tradition has attached all sorts of ideas to them that aren’t necessarily true. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is an especially misleading hymn. First, there weren’t necessarily three of them. Next, they weren’t kings. Finally, they weren’t from the so-called “Orient”.
In reality, the Magi were astrologers (like the ones you see on TV) who probably came from somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Iraq. Their job was to study the movement of the stars and make predictions for the future based on the stars’ movement. These Magi weren’t Jewish, so they wouldn’t have known about the Torah or the Hebrew prophets, and they certainly weren’t waiting for a Jewish Messiah to come and deliver them. Nevertheless, God spoke to the Magi in the language they were most likely to understand: astrology. God didn’t send a rabbi along to teach them the Bible or take them to a synagogue. Instead, God was willing to connect with these Magi through pagan rituals of divination! Talk about ‘not normal’!
Let’s see what happens next:
The Magi head to Jerusalem and meet with the established religious and political authorities in order to find this newborn “King of the Jews”. So the royal officials and scholars get together, have a Bible study, and figure out that the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem. So the Magi set out again, but once they’re on the road, do they follow the instructions laid out by the religious scholars? No! Matthew’s gospel explicitly tells us that they follow the star again.
Think about how mind-boggling this is! Even after going to Jerusalem and learning the Bible from the best scholars of the day, these Magi go right back to relying on their pagan practices; and instead of astrology leading the Magi astray, it brings them to the exact place where they were supposed to be: in the presence of Jesus. From beginning to end, there is nothing ‘normal’ about this story!
This is good news for all of us who feel ‘not normal’ in some way (especially those of us who feel out-of-place in church). This is good news because it means that the God we encounter in the person of Jesus Christ is a creative and inclusive deity. It means that this God reaches out to all people in whatever way they are most likely to hear. One of my roommates in seminary liked to say, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” The question of whether someone’s spiritual journey is ‘normal’ or ‘not normal’ by our standards is irrelevant in the eyes of God.
I am slowly coming to have an appreciation for the ‘not normal’ ways that God is at work in my life. I told you before about the wandering path that my career has taken during these past few years. I can see now that my dead-end job doing laundry with a Master’s degree was really a two-year extension of seminary. I learned to apply the theological and pastoral skills I had learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Likewise, I formed personal relationships with homeless and drug-addicted people that helped me in my future ministry.
In 2009, I started offering spiritual care to people in the inner-city through St. James Mission, an ecumenical outreach ministry in Utica. We call it our Community Chaplaincy program. While many people refer to me as a street preacher, the truth is that I don’t do much preaching at all. I’m more of a street listener. The job of a Community Chaplain is to help people listen for the ways in which God is already present and active in their lives.
I am constantly being taken by surprise in the course of this ministry. The people I work with, who exist in the very margins of our society, live lives that can in no way be understood as ‘normal’. I know one gentleman who is constantly struggling with addiction and mental illness. He has been on and off the streets several times in the past few years. The central point in his spiritual life is the image of planting seeds, which Jesus makes use of in several of his parables. Planting seeds, for this man, meant doing small deeds of kindness for others. So, in spite of his own struggles, he volunteered in several local organizations. For a long time, he was an active participant in our Bible studies on Thursday nights. He had dream of one day providing forums, called Feedback Seminars, where clients of social service agencies can offer insight and advice to service providers for making their organizations more effective. “Just like a doctor puts on a white coat to go help people,” he said, “Jesus puts us on and uses us to heal others.”
This man’s faith looks very different from what we would call ‘normal’ Christianity, but it is nonetheless genuine. He is one of the Magi, following the star God has set before him. Likewise, without my ‘not normal’ experiences of feeling lost in my career, these pieces would never have come together to form the ministry that God has called me to be a part of on the streets of Utica, in college classrooms, and here in Boonville. Even though my call to ministry looks very different from most other pastors, I believe this is the star that God has called me to follow right now.
I would like to invite you to examine those ‘not normal’ parts of your life, whatever they may be. Are they just odd quirks in your circumstance or personality? Are you just a misfit or a freak who doesn’t belong? Or is God calling you to follow a star? Could it be that God is calling you to embark on a wild and wonderful journey of faith and discovery? I want to encourage you to follow that star and see where it leads you!
For those who may not feel this sense of ‘not normality’ that I’ve been talking about today, I want to encourage you to pay special attention to those unusual people in your family, your neighborhood, or your church. Those people are Magi who have been specially chosen by God to teach us about the inclusive creativity of God and God’s work in the world. Don’t write them off as freaks and misfits, but trust that God is leading them along a special path to the same place where God is leading you: to worship Christ, the newborn king who was born in a stable, the most ‘not normal’ king of who ever lived.