This past week I have been thinking a lot about travel. I love to travel. I love to see, experience, and explore new places. One of my favorite parts of travel, is spending time in airports. I know, I know – it seems crazy, but seriously, once you get through the stress of checking bags, printing boarding passes, and going through security, airports become quite entertaining places. I decided long ago that Airport People Watching should be a sport where you collect points based on the craziest and most outlandish forms of humanity that you spot. Kind of like bird-watching where it’s all based on the honors system and you have a special notebook or journey where you record your sightings.
This past week I spent several hours at Hobby Airport while I awaited Patrick & Isabelle’s return flight from Florida. During this airport visit rather than just seeing my typical fill of people in strange outfits and overhearing bizarre conversations (like I normally do) instead I witnessed something that made me uncomfortable.
Just as I completed my trek through security and was waiting for my shoes and purse to come through the conveyor belt, I saw a young man pulled aside by security.
Normally I wouldn’t think anything about this – body scanners sometimes pick-up random stuff that’s truly nothing, but the TSA Agents must do their due diligence in order to ensure the safety of everyone traveling. And even at the times when bobby pins in my hair or my watch have caused me to be flagged and double checked, I’m grateful to them for doing their job. Truly – being a TSA Agent has to be one of the worst most thankless occupations out there.
The reason this particular encounter caught my attention was actually because of the way the TSA Agent was speaking to the young man. He was rude and condescending… overhearing his voice was the first thing that caught my attention. As I looked over I realized that the young man was African-American and was being asked to do way more than the average person who is pulled aside. This all seemed super odd because he was wearing a college football team form fitting dry fit shirt and a pair of more form fitting athletic sweatpants, so there wasn’t anyplace for him to hide anything.
The agent barked at him at one point because his outspread arms were two inches too low and he wanted them raised higher. At that point I got a really uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and felt like I needed to stay to make sure someone could witness to this situation if anything more severe should occur.
The young man was compliant and polite and after an incredibly invasive public pat-down, he was cleared to go on his way. We both collected our items and ended up putting on our shoes in the same general area. We had made eye contact several times while his ordeal was going on and as I put my shoes on he said to me – “thank you for staying.” I looked at him and said – “You’re welcome. Did they give a reason for all of that?” He explained to me that apparently the drawstring in his pants had triggered some kind of a concern.
I looked at him quizzically and said – “I’m not sure I fully buy that – I’m afraid that it may have more to do with the color of your skin than the content of your draw string.” He smiled and said – “Thank you for seeing that. Things like this happen to me all the time, and I just let the people in authority do their thing, and then go on my way. But I really appreciate that you recognized all of that.”
I replied – “You’re welcome. My children are biracial, and I fear that this will be their reality someday… and it makes me frustrated and it makes me sad.” He said – “Mam, I truly hope and believe that things will continue to get better.”
As I sat at the gate waiting for Pat & Izzy’s flight to arrive, I kept thinking about that young man – and the journey he is on, and the difficulties he must experience. And I was humbled by the fact that despite encounters like the one I witnessed, he continues to be positive and hope and believe in a better future.
There are times when as a pastor you kind of feel like you’re being punched in the face by the Holy Spirit – and for me this was one of those times. As I sat there and thought about all that had just happened and wondered about his journey, my mind just continued to progress down what I refer to as – the Holy Spirit Rabbit Hole.
I started thinking about the Syrian Refugees in Europe who are travelling far from their homes to Italy and Germany – fleeing violence – and seeking a new start. Why are they doing this? Because despite the horrific traumas that they have experienced – they hope and believe that at the end of their journey, there is something better for them. That things will continue to get better.
Which then made me think about the migrant caravan we keep hearing about in the news – thousands of people travelling north from Central America… hoping and believing that at the end of their journey, there is something better for them.
And THEN it occurred to me that the upcoming Sunday (today) is Epiphany, and I was going to be preaching about the Magi and their journey toward a star that they hoped and believed symbolized the birth of a child that would make life better for them and for the entire world. They too were on a journey of hope and belief for better things. Pow – punch in the face by the Holy Spirit!
We generally think of the Magi as “Kings” or “Wise Men” as these are common translations, however, those aren’t actually accurate. The Magi were most likely Zoroastrian priests (from Persia and/or Arabia) who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity.
They were astronomers and astrologers – which at that time was considered a highly regarded science. They were scientists.
It is generally assumed that there were 3 Magi based on the 3 gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which are given to the Christ child. However, the gospel narrative doesn’t give an accounting of how many Magi there are, or even their gender. Some sources I read claimed that the Zoroastrian priests and their followers traveled around in large caravans of families from place to place much like gypsies. So, there could have been three individual magi or there could have been hundreds of them. One commentator joked that the presence of women would certainly explain why they stopped and asked Herod for directions.
These people from a foreign land who practiced a foreign religion saw a star rise in the sky and followed it hoping and believing they would find something or more specifically someone that would make the world better.
Shelly Matthews wrote: “Our Christian faith is deeply rooted in our scriptures, our doctrine and our traditions, but sometimes we are also guided by something more – something else – the light of a star that comes not from our familiar religious practice, but a light that still leads us onward.”
I think humanity as a whole is conditioned to either collectively or individually look toward metaphorical stars as signs of hope for our futures.
To be led by a light onward. For some their stars might be found in younger generations full of excitement and new ideas. For some it might be in political or social justice work. For others religious beliefs or communities.
What is your star? What is the thing that you look toward in hopeful anticipation while you journey through life? What is informing your decisions as you engage the world each day? I know you are all sitting there thinking – oooo, ooooo, I know the answer! It’s Jesus! Because the correct answer is always Jesus! And theoretically, yes, that should be the answer, but what is is it?
Faith? Love? Justice? Peace? Family? (Interestingly enough – Jesus is present in all of those.) What is your star? And how are you getting to it? How are you engaging your neighbors similar to you and those vastly different from you as you go on your way? Jesus gave us a road map of how journey as we follow our stars in Matthew 25 when we are told to love and care for one another, especially the lost and the least. What does your journey toward your star look like?
And what will you do once you arrive? The Magi worshiped Jesus and then went out proclaiming to the world what they had seen and experienced. What will you do once the journey toward your star is fulfilled?
Or will you ever arrive in the first place? Perhaps our stars are those things that are just abstract and unattainable enough that they keep driving us forward, always journeying toward the light, always full of hope that things will continue to get better. What is your star and how is your journey?
I generally like to think that my journey is going great and I’m doing really well, and everything is as it should be, and that I’m awesome! Because – you know, I’m awesome! And then, I have moments like this past week where I get angry and frustrated and righteously indignant on behalf of another, and they in turn are gracious and positive and hopeful in the belief that our world is and continues to be getting better. What is your star and how is your journey going as you strive toward your star?
Star of wonder, star of might, star with royal beauty bright… westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Please pray with me – Good and gracious God, we give you thanks for our stars and our journeys. Pour your Holy Spirit upon us and continue to guide us forward and empower us to do your work of justice, reconciliation, and peace as we go. Encourage us to never lose sight of our stars and to never cease in our journeys. In Jesus Holy Name we pray, Amen.