Sunday’s Sermon: Of Rabbits, Magi, & Revelations

Texts for this sermon: Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 and Matthew 2:1-12

Velveteen Rabbit

  • Let me introduce you to someone. [Hold up Velvie] This is Velvie – the aptly-and-very-creatively named Velveteen Rabbit that was mine when I was a kid.
    • Story of the Velveteen Rabbit = classic, beautiful story
      • Toy rabbit given to a boy for Christmas
        • Initially wasn’t played with much – spent most of his time on the shelf with the other toys → put him down because he was only made of sawdust (no mechanics, no moving parts)
        • Also meets Skin Horse, one of the oldest and wisest toys in the nursery → Skin Horse tells Velveteen Rabbit about being REAL: “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day … “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”[1]
      • According to the Skin Horse, being “real” is a process, a journey. It’s a journey to be something different, something new – a journey of growth and transformation and revelation.
        • Not unlike journey of the Magi
        • Not unlike our faith
      • You see, friends, faith isn’t a destination. It’s not something that we finally reach after years of searching and working and perfecting. It’s a journey that we take with other people and with God.
  • The journey itself is an ever-changing, ever-evolving thing, and one of the greatest influences on a journey is who you’re traveling with.
    • Think about a simple car trip up to the cities.
      • Picture trip with one or two people whose company you know you’d enjoy – laughing, maybe listening to the same music/radio station, talking
      • Now picture same trip with one or two people whose company you don’t enjoy – different trip?
      • What if you were taking that trip all alone in the car? See what I mean? It’s the same stretch of highway, but those are three very different journeys simply because of the people going along for the ride.
    • Velveteen Rabbit’s journey …
      • First altered by aunt who gives him to the boy for Christmas
      • Also affected by relationship with Skin Horse
      • Drastically altered by boy’s nanny – One night, when the little boy couldn’t find the china dog he usually slept with, his nanny gaves him the Velveteen Rabbit to sleep with instead. From that moment on, the Velveteen Rabbit and the boy became inseparable.
      • Most profound impact made on his journey comes from the Boy himself: The Boy used to talk to him, … and they had splendid games together…. And when the Boy dropped off to sleep, the Rabbit would snuggle down close under his little warm chin and dream, with the Boy’s hands clasped close round him all night long. And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.[2] → At first, only the look and feel of the Velveteen Rabbit’s days are altered by his relationship with the Boy. But before long, the look and feel of the Velveteen Rabbit himself begins to change because of that relationship.
    • Magis’ journey = constantly changing → begins as an homage trip, becomes a sort of information-gathering mission for Herod, ends up a bit of an escape mission – each alteration in magis’ path coincides with a change in the people that were a part of their journey
      • Journey initiated by in-breaking of presence of God in their lives – glimpse of the Star of Bethlehem
      • And when all they tried to do was stop and ask for directions, they end up in a secret meeting with the King – journey slightly delayed by run-in with Herod: Pretending to be as devout as they were, [Herod] got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. … “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.” Instructed by the king, they set off.[3]
      • Journey reached another phase when they found the Christ-child: They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him.[4] → culmination of sorts because they did what they set out to do – pay homage to the newborn king
      • But their journey wasn’t over yet.: In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.[5] → After another encounter with God, their path changed yet again.
        • Scholar: Could it be Matthew is offering a tantalizing hint about life for those who have met Christ? Nothing is ever the same. You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover an alternative path.[6] → The journey continues, but the path is never the same.
    • Think of the people you encounter each and every day.
      • The obvious people: loved ones (family, friends), co-workers
      • But there are also the less-obvious people – the people we don’t see or don’t want to see.
        • Person asking for spare change at the intersection
        • Stressed-out looking single parent in the grocery store with the screaming children
        • Person struggling with mental illness
        • That person (co-worker, family, neighbor) who just gets under your skin – makes you duck away at the mailbox/water cooler/etc.
    • Friends, these are the people we journey with. Each and every one of our encounters with people affects us in some way. We rub off on each other, whether we like it or not, whether we’re a part of each other’s lives for a moment or a lifetime.
      • Scholar explains why we travel together: It is very important to seek guidance along the way. No one of us, not even any small group of us, can know it all. There are others who are seeking, [too].[7] → You see? It’s our interactions with all the people around us – the ones we love and the ones we find it hard to love – it’s these interactions that shape and inform and challenge and stretch our faith. And it’s our interactions with them that shape and inform and challenge and stretch their faith.
  • But no matter who we’re traveling with, sometimes the encounters we have are difficult for us; they make us feel uncomfortable.
    • Discomfort in Velveteen Rabbit’s journey:
      • Boy contracts Scarlet Fever – spends a very long time in bed with his Velveteen Rabbit to keep him company
      • When he finally gets better, doctor orders nanny to discard and burn all the things he’s been playing with during his illness including the Velveteen Rabbit
      • Nanny takes all out to the trash bins to burn the next day
      • Story: That night the Boy slept in a different bedroom … And while the Boy was asleep, dreaming of the seaside, the little Rabbit lay among the old picture-books in the corner behind the fowl-house, and he felt very lonely. … He thought of those long sunlit hours in the garden–how happy they were–and a great sadness came over him. He seemed to see them all pass before him, each more beautiful than the other … He thought of the Skin Horse, so wise and gentle, and all that he had told him. Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this? And a tear, a real tear, trickled down his little shabby velvet nose and fell to the ground.[8]
    • Discomfort of the Magis’ journey
      • Remember: original reason for pilgrimage = to find the newborn king of the Jews and pay him homage
      • Herod hears about this “king of the Jews” and gets scared – co-opts the Magis’ pilgrimage as a search mission for his own purposes
        • Lie he tells to the Magi: “As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”[9]
        • But a few verses after what we read this morning, an angel reveals Herod’s real reason for finding Jesus as a warning in another one of Joseph’s dreams: Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.[10]
        • And when the Magi themselves are made aware of this treachery in a different dream, they are so uncomfortable with this shift in purpose that they decide to head home via a different route – one that will take them out of Herod’s reach. But it was only when they were face-to-face with the discomfort that the Magi were able to change their path.
  • And you know what? That’s one of the hardest things about journeys and about the learning and growing that we do as we go along. More often than not, our greatest growth comes not from the happy, easy parts of the path but from those challenging and uncomfortable ones.
    • Think of it in terms of light: What’s brighter? A light shining in an already sun-lit room, or a light shining in the darkness?
      • Visible in both? Yes.
      • Dazzling in both? No. → cannot dazzle without the darkness
    • Goal of our journey of faith is not necessarily what’s at the end but what happens as part of the journey itself
      • Ps gives us God’s example for how we should journey together
        • With justice: Please stand up for the poor, help the children of the needy.[11] → requires active faith, not passive faith
          • = active verbs (stand up, help, defend, save)
        • Also encouraged to travel with compassion: [God] opens a place in [God’s] heart for the down-and-out.[12] → opening our own hearts is a scary thing, a dangerous thing
          • Could be hurt
          • Could be taken advantage of
          • Could be rejected
          • Could even be forgotten like Velveteen Rabbit
          • But if these are all chances that God is willing to take for us, how can we refuse to that these chances for other people? Other beloved children of God?
        • Scholar: Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed. … [With Jesus], a strange, unfamiliar road is our new path – but the road is going somewhere.[13]
      • The Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t find the end of his story soaked in tears.
        • Tear he shed grew up into a flower → from the flower stepped a fairy → transforms him into a real bunny and introduces him to a whole new life (new friends, new experiences, new way of living)
          • Couldn’t have been possible without first part of the Velveteen Rabbit’s journey – the ups as well as the downs
            • Remember words of 1st scholar I quoted earlier?: Could it be Matthew is offering a tantalizing hint about life for those who have met Christ? Nothing is ever the same. You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover an alternative path.[14] → Friends, throughout our journeys of faith, we are always changing and growing. We’re always challenging those around us and being challenged ourselves. As we journey, new people join us to travel alongside for a time while others’ paths veer away from ours and they leave us. But no matter where our journey takes us, God is always there to show us the compassion, the grace, the integrity, and the love that we seek. The journey continues, but the path is never the same. Amen.

Benediction:
17th cent. Japanese poet Matsuo Basho: “Each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Friends, journey well.

[1] Margaret Williams. The Velveteen Rabbit. (New York, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc.), 1922. From http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/williams/rabbit/rabbit.html, accessed 31 Dec. 2014.

[2] Williams.

[3] Mt 2:7b, 8-9a.

[4] Mt 2:11a.

[5] Mt 2:12.

[6] James C. Howell. “Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 216.

[7] William V. Arnold. “Epiphany of the Lord – Matthew 2:1-12 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 214.

[8] Williams.

[9] Mt 2:8.

[10] Mt 2:13.

[11] Ps 72:4.

[12] Ps 72:13.

[13] Howell, 216.

[14] Howell, 216.

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