A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: “To Pay Homage”

“To Pay Homage”

January 8, 2023


This past week I’ve noticed that a lot of people, including me, are out of sorts. After the holidays, it seems many of us are having a tough time getting grounded, re-oriented, started for the year ahead.  Can you relate? (Hands raised.) The weather appears to be a significant factor, especially for those with Seasonal Affective challenges.  

I confess that I have been distracted by the news, by the weather, by the breakdown of the refrigerator at the parsonage and ordering the wrong one, and in a quite wonderful way by making plans for a summer pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland. I’ve been distracted by meetings, by needing to return a Christmas present.  The list goes on and on. Being out of sorts or distracted can make it difficult to tune into the presence of God. 

The magi show us the opposite of distraction.  (By the way, scripture never says they are kings – or that there were three of them. The only kings in the story are Herod and Jesus.)  Most commentators have concluded that they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia, modern day Iran, who believed they could foretell miraculous births by reading the stars. They were scientists, stargazers. The magi were attentive, focused seekers – looking for the birth of an extraordinary king, for a manifestation of God.  They were paying attention to celestial signs and were able to recognize a guiding star. 

I suspect that even if a super nova was overhead last week, so many of us would have been looking at screens or distracted in other ways, that we might not have even noticed it. But, the magi were focused, attentive. 

(Skipped section during worship: The Magi did lose sight of the star for a wee bit. Their preconceived notions (pt to head) that a king must be born among a royal family (Herod’s family?) and in a royal city – that the Magi put them off track.  After meeting Herod, whose ruthless, self-centered ambitions were thinly veiled, they realized their mistake, and then the star reappeared to the them.  Attentively, they followed. 

For those who first heard Matthew’s narrative about the Magi, the story would make no sense.  They, too, had preconceived notions.  A messiah was supposed to come for them and only them.  But, the main characters of the story, the magi, were foreigners, the ultimate outsiders – following the wrong God, in the wrong way. To Matthew’s community, the Magi would be among the last people to recognize their Christ. 

Matthew had an agenda for his narrative. He wanted his listeners to understand that the appearance of Christ had significance far beyond them alone. He wanted them to see Christ as God’s gift for all people no matter their race, their culture, and even their religion. Matthew wanted his listeners to recognize that God’s grace extends to people beyond themselves. Daniel Clendinin notes, “This was one of the hardest lessons for the early church, which at first was entirely Jewish, the shocking idea that the Gentiles were, from God’s perspective, on equal footing with the Jews.” 

Tragically, this mindset continues even among some followers of Jesus who think that the way they practice Christianity is the only right way to God. Anyone else – well, they are outside of the one, true fold, outside of grace.  Of course this isn’t just a Christian problem.  It’s a tendency among the most orthodox of all faiths to think their way is the only right way. Today’s gospel reading wants us to check any semblance of exclusivist religious thinking. The Magi demonstrate that God’s grace knows no bounds.) 

The appearance of the magi in Matthew’s story models a way of looking for and finding God beyond the borders of a particular land, culture, religion, or way of life. They were able to find the presence of God in a religious expression not their own. Are we? Or do we prefer well-worn paths, familiar practices, reassuring and comfortable traditions, while looking upon other traditions with suspicion? How open are we to discovering God’s presence in other cultures and traditions?

The story of the Epiphany suggests that even if we belong to a particular religious tradition, we can discover that God is also present among other people, other places, and in other spiritual practices. 

What does Matthew say? “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 

The Magi paid Jesus, the Christ, homage. Kneeling down, these Zoroastrian priests from Persia, from Iran, prostrated themselves. They physically humbled and surrendered themselves.

The spiritual practice of paying homage, of prostration, is found across the religious traditions of the world. In Hinduism a student will pay homage and prostrate themselves after receiving a teacher’s wisdom. In Buddhism, prostration is used in various ways, such as the Tibetan tantric practice of 100,000 prostrations as a means of overcoming pride.  In some Christian denominations, the ritual of ordination to ministry includes prostration. In Islam, prostration is an essential part of the five times a day prayer. To prostrate oneself is a spiritual gesture of submission; it represents a pledge of pure generosity, of giving one’s whole life to God. 

Think about it, have any of us ever done it? It’s not common in our culture to bow like that. We are kind of an unbowing, unbending people. We don’t bow. 

It seems to me, if there is any religious tradition we might think is as foreign to us as Zoroastrianism was to the Jews of Matthew’s time, it is Islam. Our perspective is so deeply colored by what happened on 9/11 and upon the politics and wars of the Middle East, it can be almost inconceivable for most of us to think that God’s grace might be present and active in Islam.  It can be hard to imagine that Islam has something of spiritual value to teach us.

Does anyone know the meaning of the world Islam? (Silence) We have to do some religious literacy…Surrender… Islam means “to surrender.”  So it’s not surprising a primary spiritual practice in Islam would be prostration.

According to Imam Mahdi, a Shia Muslim religious leader in this country, “Prostrating is an act of surrender and thus requires a high degree of humility. (Not exactly one of the defining characteristics of this culture.) You would not lower your head unless the one you bow before is greater and more powerful than yourself. It is an acknowledgment of yielding to another.”

He adds, “The act of prostration requires a believer to shed their arrogance. One must be humble in order to bow before our Creator when we recognize “His” importance. The Koran says, ‘Whatever is in the heavens and the earth, the cattle and the angels prostrate themselves before God without pride.’”   Some good spiritual lessons for us. 

Imam Mahdi goes on, “Our foreheads touch the earth, connecting us to God’s universe at the same time our spirit is meant to connect with the Almighty. One could say that the intimacy between God and the believer is greatest while prostrating because of the vulnerable state we are in, forcing us to concentrate on the All-Powerful. Therefore, the soul is better able to disassociate from the material world, arrogance, and pride.”

Listen to this! Imam Mahdi offers: “Another spiritual benefit of prostration is the harmony that it fosters, not only amongst fellow believers but also with all of God’s creations.All of God’s faithful creations bow their heads in unison in submissive prostration to the All-Knowing. The Koran asks  ‘Have you not considered that those in the heavens and the earth, the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the mountains, the trees, the animals, and many people, all bow down to God?’ Although we may seem alone when we bow our heads in prostration, there is a recognition that, through the Divine, we are in concordance (in harmony) with all that worships Him.” (All people, all creation, the celestial skies…)

It seems to me that those lessons of humility, of setting aside pride, of being in harmony with each other and the earth, of having focus and attention – all of those things are spiritual lessons we can take to heart.  We have something to learn from Islam. 

The Magi paid homage to Christ; Muslims pay homage to God five times a day.  What might we learn, what might we understand about our relationship to God if our experience of prayer was more embodied, if we prostrated ourselves before God. 

I’m going to show you a spiritual practice. This is a Sufi body prayer that my friend Rev. Brigid Beckman taught me on retreat this summer. (I will put it in the daily email on Tuesday.) Sufis are the mystics in Islam.  “The Beloved” is a name for God. 

“I step into the embrace of the Beloved…”

Take one step forward with the right foot, then bring the left to meet it.

“…to receive all that I need and to give all that I am …”

Cup hands in front of heart, then extend forward as in a gesture of giving

I put behind me all worldly concerns, ego, and what no longer serves…”

Bring hands back, palms facing forward, at shoulder level, elbows bent

“…I open my heart…”

Place hands over heart center

“…and offer thanksgiving and praise…”

Lift hands and arms upwards, while also looking up

“…I surrender to You…”

Bow at the waist, sliding hands down the things to knees

“…that I thy will become my will…”

Drop to knees and touch forehead to the ground, if able; otherwise, bow

“…now and always…”

Sit up and back on heels, hands resting on thighs, if able; otherwise circle arms and bring to praying position at the heart.

“…at one with You.

Rev. Kate McFarlane offers this insight: “(In the incarnation of Christ) In Jesus, God gave us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of himself. In return the wise amongst us are called to give the first and truly greatest gift of those (magi) from the east, their homage, their very selves. It is the one gift, the only gift, which can begin to match what God has already given us.”

As a new year unfolds, we can expect our journeys will bring the unexpected.  There will be highs and lows we can not possibly foresee.  There will be stars that try to get our attention, to lead us more fully into the presence of God. In the midst of whatever may come, what will matter most is our relationship with God.  

The Magi understood this; as do many Muslims.  Our God has given us everything. In return, we can pay homage; we can give ourselves to God. Amen.