As the holiday season comes to a close, now is as good a time as any to review what it means to be a good guest. I popped on-line to see what the inter webs have to say and my favorite advice column by far came from Annalisa Barbieri, weekend columnist for the Guardian and the Observer's chocolate correspondent.
She has some good advice for aspiring guests - which we will get to in a moment - but more importantly, she is a “chocolate correspondent.” Did you catch that? I didn’t even know that was a thing when I was growing up. But apparently it is. And, well, now I am seriously questioning all of my life choices.
Barbieri doesn’t say anything especially new, she just says it all in a way that makes you realize what an awful guest you’ve probably been at some point in your life.
She reminds us all to rsvp immediately, show up with a generous gift for our host, and not trouble them in the least with our complicated travel plans. And then she gets down to brass tacks which I have edited for length and clarity in the hopes that this sermon will reach, well…. you know who you are (1).
OK, here we go:
Do not bring food that has to be consumed during your stay but underestimate the number of people it has to feed. Unless it’s cheese. (Cheese is always welcome and honestly there is never enough… Bring cheese anyway.).
Do not have a complicated list of what you or your children won’t eat. Unless you are allergic to something, the correct response … is “we eat everything and anything and are grateful for it”. Your host is unlikely to cook tripe and liver unless they hate you.
When food is served, if there is something you don’t like, ..shut up and avoid it. …If you want a menu to choose from, go to a restaurant and pay for it.
Do not spend the whole time you are there on your phone. (Seriously, I just have to break in here and say that it breaks my heart to see families go to all the trouble and expense of gathering and then sit together in a room and not paying any attention to each other at all).
Do not bicker with your partner, your children, or anyone else.
Do not use this opportunity to espouse your political views or (for the love of God) call Jesus into the fray. (My goodness, I love that! I don’t know if this woman makes house calls, but seriously, I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes I could have brought her home for Christmas).
Do not ( I repeat) do not use this opportunity to have a go at the host (or any other guest) and ask why they are not married or don’t have children yet. (Just. Don’t.)
Make sure to share a positive comment on something to do with the house. Lie if you have to.
If you drink lots of tea/coffee, (learn) how to make your own and offer others a cup, too – especially your host. Use the same cup each time, so your host doesn’t have a nervous breakdown (That’s really good).
Offer to do the washing up and bring your plate to the kitchen unless your host has asked you not to…
If you are fussy about bedding, bring your own.
(If you tend to get cold) bring extra layers. Don’t ask if they can turn the heat up. Do (jumping jacks if you have to).
(Perhaps most important) Leave when you said you would.
(And finally,) Smile and enjoy yourself. The lowest impact guests are the ones who leave everyone feeling good, either by helping or not hindering. If you get an invite back, you’ll know (what kind of guest you really are).
Honestly, I kind of feel like I could end right there and this would go down in history as one of my more useful sermons. Is any one out there wishing you’d read this article two weeks ago? Anyone wishing your guests had read it? (Anyone still just contemplating a career move to chocolate correspondent?) I feel you. I do.
But it’s going to have to wait, because we haven’t talked about the Magi yet, and they have some very important things to teach us about how to be good guests as well; first and foremost because their very presence in this story should remind us as Christians that we ourselves are very much guests…guests in the household of faith that brought us Jesus.
I know we don’t think of ourselves that way. We tend to think of the Magi as exotic men from afar who came to see “our” baby. But as we step into this new liturgical season, we would do well to remember that the season of Epiphany is all about the revelation of Jesus not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles, and last I checked, that included people like you and me (2).
I don’t want to assume you all know what the term “Gentile” means, so allow me to define it for us? Gentile, simply means, “not Jewish.” Most of you who call First Churches home, me, the Magi, we’re not Jewish.
And yet by the grace of God this Jewish baby, foretold by Jewish prophets, born to Jewish parents, raised in the Jewish faith to become a rabbi who lived and died as a practicing Jew, is our light, our salvation, our messiah. Our belief in Jesus brings us into such close proximity with his household of faith that we would do well to be on our best behavior.
We begin this season of Epiphany with the Magi, who were most likely Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, coming to pay homage to “the new born king of the Jews.” The fact that Jesus’ presence has even been revealed to them, is our first inkling that this Jewish messiah has not just come for the sake of his own people, but all people.
As it says in Isaiah:
"Nations shall come to your light and royals to the brightness of your dawn. …they …come to you; your sons … from far away, and your daughters …Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, …the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels (from) Midian and Ephah (and) Sheba … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall … praise … the Lord. 7All the flocks of Kedar …the rams of Nebaioth …(gifts and sacrifices from other lands, other peoples, and other religions) shall be acceptable on my altar, (says God) and I will glorify my glorious house” (60:1-7).
Isaiah paints this beautiful image of inclusion. Within the writings of this Hebrew prophet we find a vision of a God who longs to welcome all people under one roof- people from other tribes and nations and faiths - welcome them all into God’s glorious house so we can offer our gifts to God and feast together.
And here in the gospel of Matthew we see how, from the very beginning of Jesus’ story, this vision has the potential to become a reality if the guests who have been invited simply behave well.
Thankfully, the Magi do. They are terrific guests. After careful observation of the stars, they determine that a new king has been born. He may not be their king, but they still think he is worth celebrating, so the Magi set out for the palace in Jerusalem to acknowledge their neighbors’ good fortune.
When it turns out that everyone there is living in such fear of the current tyrant that they have no awareness of this wondrous birth, the Magi stay calm and recalibrate. They don’t argue with their hosts. Instead, they take what little the scribes have to offer and, trusting in their own wisdom and the gifts of their own faith, they continue to follow their star - their way - which eventually leads them Bethlehem, affirming what the Hebrew prophet had predicted.
In spite of all appearances to the contrary, when they arrive at Jesus’ humble little home, these wise men from afar kneel down in wonder before the baby and pay him homage. They don’t dismiss the possibility that God can work amongst the poor or the powerless.
They bring him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and honor him as a king; precious gifts that Mary and Joseph may well have used when it came time to flee to Egypt. I would imagine those gifts gave them the means to secure safe passage abroad and protect Jesus once they became refugees.
But the Magi bring us gifts as well, because in their bearing they show us how we, as fellow Gentiles and guests, ought to behave in the household of Jesus or any other household of faith.
I can’t help but wonder, as I read over their part in this story, how different the history of Christianity would be if we had, from the outset, behaved toward others with the same curiosity, humility, wonder, and generosity as the Magi (3).
Imagine how different the world might be if Christians throughout the ages had used our knowledge to find others the better to honor and protect them rather than defeat and conquer them.
Imagine if we had taken a cue from the Magi and shown up in the midst of other countries bearing gifts rather than claiming whatever riches we could find for ourselves in the name of God and country.
Rather than view the differences of others as an excuse to discredit, demean, or destroy them, imagine if Christians throughout history had shown up in the midst of other faith communities with curiosity and humility. Imagine is we had been willing to learn from others no matter how poor or powerless they appeared to be.
Imagine how different the world might be if we had tapped into the vision of Isaiah and chosen to love and honor the unique gifts people of other faiths can bring to the table… the way that God does; the way Mary and Joseph do.
Imagine the peace and goodwill we all might have known, if we had celebrated the different things God was doing in their midst rather than force our particular understanding of faith upon our unsuspecting hosts.
And finally, imagine a world where Christians simply made it a point to leave people and places better than we found them. And not just other people and other places, but our own people and our own places… our churches, our communities, our planet.
Seriously, imagine how different the world might be if Christians were the sort of people who lived like guests across the board: lightly, carefully, helping not hindering, with the understanding that none of this belongs to us, all of it is a gift, and the last thing we want to do is break it or spoil it for anyone else.
The Magi were very good guests, in part because they thought of themselves that way…as guests. They didn’t show up and take over. They didn’t appropriate what wasn’t theirs. They appeared with humble and generous hearts ready to take joy in the joy of their hosts, celebrate what God was doing in their midst, help in any way that they could, and then, like the very best guests, you know what they did?
They left! They didn’t overstay their welcome. But - and here is where we really need to pay attention - Matthew tells us that having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi not only left, but left by another road. The Greek word here is hodos… meaning “way.”
They left by another way, and friends, I know many many sermons have been written about that last line. I’ve even preached some of them. But Amy-Jill Levine, herself a Jewish Scholar of the New Testament and therefore someone we should happily defer to, points out something I never thought of before.
She reminds us that the first Christians didn’t call themselves “Christians.” They called themselves “followers of the way.” The Hodos. Same word.
The first Christians meant that they were followers of the way of Jesus and here, right at the outset of his story, we see how following in his way - a way marked by curiosity, humility, wonder, and generosity - not only led the Magi to the messiah, but helped these good guests find their way home.
Friends, I know that Christians have done a lot of damage over the years and that history bears witness to the fact that we have not been good guests much of the time. But I’d also like to think that it’s not too late for Christians like you and me to follow in the footsteps of the Magi.
As another year begins, maybe it’s time for people like us to move in a new way: a little more lightly, helpfully, and carefully. Hopefully with a little more curiosity, humility, wonder, and generosity than our forebears have in the past.
Move in such a way that people are happy when we come to visit.
Move in such a way that people want us to come back because their lives are better for having guests like us in their home.
As my good friend the Rev. Michael McSherry likes to say, may it be so and may it be soon. Amen.
2 I recognize that use of the word “Jew” rather than “Jewish” is tricky here and mean no offense. In keeping with this article, I will use “Jewish” whenever possible, but defer to the use of “Jew” when grammatically appropriate. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/22/opinion/reclaiming-jew.html#commentsContainer
3 This section inspired by chapter 18 in “We Make the Road by Walking,” by Brian McLaren
4 “Light of The World” p 135