A Camel on the Roof            |           Matthew 2:1-12   |   01/06/08

With Epiphany comes the question, "Where does one look for God?"

We begin with a story from a collection of the lives of saints - the saints of Islam - which concerns a king of Balkh (now northern Afghanistan) named Ebrahim ibn Adam. Ebrahim was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, however, he sincerely and restlessly strove to be wealthy spiritually as well.

"One night the king was roused from sleep by a fearful stomping on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: 'Who's there?' 'A friend,' came the reply from the roof. 'I've lost my camel.' Perturbed by such stupidity, Ebrahim screamed: 'You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?'

'You fool!' the voice from the roof answered. 'Are you looking for God in silk clothing, and lying on a golden bed?' " The story goes on, according to Jesuit theologian Walter G. Burghardt, to tell how these simple words filled the king with such terror that he arose from his sleep to become a most remarkable saint (Still Proclaiming your Wonders: Homilies for the Eighties [New York: Paulist Press, 1984], 55).

Each text calls us to be like the king's friend, willing to make a fool of ourselves asking the camel-on-the-roof question to a world busy seeking God in all the wrong places. Willing to rouse the world with the message of "Arise, shine, for your light has come."

The camel on the roof raises the Epiphany question, Where are you looking for God? This compelling question of life properly stands at the beginning of a new year, just as Where have you found God? nicely serves as a question to cap a year's closing.

Each one of the lectionary texts raises the camel-on-the-roof question in one form or another that God is not to be found where the world's princes and powers reside.  The Magi first went to Jerusalem, the royal city where King Herod resided. However, it was in little insignificant Bethlehem where they found the king they were seeking.

Many of us try to find God and solve the problems of life by logical, calculating schemes to insure we receive our share. But God is to be found in receiving, not grasping; in giving, not claiming our rights. William Morrow wrote the popular quote: What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

The longest journey can be the shortest distance -- the journey around and within. One reason God is not more real is that we look only at remote and distant places and not around and within.

Ever notice how the places that are celebrated as perfectly gifted with the qualities that raise consciousness, enlighten the mind, bring peace to the soul -- are located about as far away from where you are as possible?
Popular spiritualities routinely tout the mountains of Tibet, the temples of India, the deserts of New Mexico as the best locations for exalted spiritual insight and renewal.

When is the last time you heard someone talk about finding fertile ground for nurturing the soul in ... Topeka, Kansas; Boise, Idaho; or Bastrop, Louisiana? Perhaps that is one reason so many of us decide that setting out on a spiritual quest, going on a journey in search of God's perfect presence, is simply too much effort.

Assuming that an experience of holiness requires some exotic, remote location, we despair of any hope of experiencing God in our own lives before we even get started.

God's saints throughout the world have a light to shine in the darkness. Christians carry an illumination from God that can advise the world's kings and princes, presidents and prime ministers, as well as minister comfort and healing to the poor and needy.

As we begin a new year, one thing is sure: more and more people are trying to find a way to God by climbing the ladders of success and power and respectability. Increasingly, the pursuit of money and power has become one of the most powerful mystery religions ever to show its face in the history of humanity.

In contrast, the Epiphany News is that God is found in incarnation, in the humility of birth in a stable. As startling as a camel on a roof is the Christian message that the vulnerability of a life of homelessness, and the suffering of death on a cross, are heralded as marks of God's most powerful work in the history of humanity.

And what is this message? "Arise, shine, for your light has come." From what direction does it come? Not from economics or the wealth of nations, regardless of Alexander Pope's 1738 update of Homer's original maxim:

"Get place and wealth if
possible with Grace;
If not, by any means,
get wealth and place."
            -Imitations of Horace, Epistle 1, Book 1, 1.103.

Not from education or the wisdom of the world. Not from science or technology. The magi point us to where the world's best hope, the world's only salvation comes: bowing before the Christ who is found, worshiped and served.

"Where does one look for God?" Our spiritual journey gets off on the wrong foot when we make the mistake of looking for God's presence and purpose somewhere "out there." Instead of traveling off to some isolated mountaintop or deserted island, consider that Jesus spent the bulk of his spiritual journey, his earthly mission, in the ordinary towns and villages of his native Palestine.

 

 

He taught and preached and performed miracles in the most humdrum of locations -- in neighborhoods, at the docks, in homes filled with noisy kids and everyday chores. Wherever he found himself, Jesus knew he would find God's word, God's presence, as he looked around and within.

The spiritual journey we each make is not simply a race to some cosmic finish line. The journey itself is as intentional as the destination.
Often, we find God in the most unexpected places. This year, let us be aware and open to finding God in unexpected places. Look around and within. We may be intrigued by the surprising, and sometimes shocking, nature of God''s presence in this world.

 

 

We were meant to enjoy, to delight, to celebrate. To be fascinated by presence, mystery. God gave us the capacity for wonder, amazement, and surges of realization. We have within us the ability to be so sensitive to patterns of beauty that they interest us and dwell in us from that time on.

To be fully human is to have an awareness of accumulated experience and occasional insights into their meaning, their worth, and the beauty of God’s working in our lives over the course of our lives.

 

 

We don’t have to look for a camel on the roof. Instead of continuing to rush about, we take in, appreciate; we sense what it all means. We feel the flowing generosity of communion and consummation. The altogether lovely is present, not merely longed-for. We cleave to that which is good until it becomes part of us.

"The passage for today inspires us to keep an attitude of wonder alive in everything we do--whether it is in conversation with someone or directing our eyes to the heavens."
Amen.

Rev. Rosemary Stelz

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