Matthew 2: 1 – 12_Consequential Strangers_January 5, 2020)

Consequential Strangers

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

(preached on January 5, 2020)


When I was thirteen years old, my parents decided it was time for me to get to know some of my more distant relatives.  They wanted me to get to know the Southern side of the family, my mother’s side.  They lived in Mobile, Alabama.  So my folks  put me on a plane in Pittsburgh, headed for Mobile.  After boarding the plane, I was happy to find a seat by the window.  As I was settling in, a man dressed in a business suit sat down beside me.  You may recall that in those days, air travel was a little different from the way it is today.  Today on an airplane we’re seated so close together that it’s hard to have a relaxed conversation with the person beside us.  We just don’t have enough personal space.  But years ago, seating on a plane was more spacious.  We weren’t packed in like sardines.


Also, years ago, fear of strangers wasn’t at the fever pitch it is today.  Some of us even felt that one of the fun things about travel was chatting with people we didn’t know.  So I didn’t mind when a businessman stowed his briefcase above and took the seat beside me.  And I was pleased when he turned to me and asked, “Are you a seasoned air traveler?”  His question launched a conversation that went on for the entire flight.


I told the man what I was learning in school and what I hoped to do in the future.  He told me about his work.  He told me he sometimes had to travel for business and preferred this airline to all the others.  I told him about my interests: that I was crazy about the Beatles but didn’t like the Rolling Stones so much.  We compared notes on travel experiences, favorite foods, movies we had enjoyed.


As the flight went on, the conversation moved beyond small talk.  I told him about my family: my sister and brothers, scattered around the Northeast, pursuing their eduations.  He told me about his family, too: his school age children, their accomplishments and the silly things they did.  By the end of the flight we had shared a lot about our lives.  But, you know, it’s strange.  I never learned his name.  I never saw him again.  But in that conversation I shared things with him that I wouldn’t have told my close friends or even my family.


Since that conversation with a stranger on an airplane, I’ve learned that psychologists have a name for that kind of interpersonal communication.  Psychologists call it the “strangers on a train” phenomenon.  They say this “strangers on a train” phenomenon may be one of the reasons why online social networking is so popular.  In the book, Consequential Strangers, Melinda Blau writes that relationships with people outside our circle of close friends are important.  Relationships with people outside our friends and family play an important role in our lives.


Consequential strangers can be like the man I met on that plane. They’re different from our close friends and families because they’re outside what Blau calls the “web of obligations” that tends to shape our close relationships.  Relationships with consequential strangers aren’t a substitute for intimate relationships, but they can be helpful.  Talking with a consequential stranger, we can be more open.  For example, we can talk about a problem we might be having with our mother in law.  We can share the ups and downs of living with a teenage son.  We can share  more openly because we know a stranger doesn’t have a vested interest in the situation.  And, speaking with someone outside our circle of friends and family, we might even be more open to a word of criticism, something we might not hear so readily from a friend or family member.


Consequential strangers can play an important role in our lives.  We may not know when their birthdays are.  We may not know how they manage their money.  We would never call on them to give us a ride when our car is in the shop, or stay with our sick child so we can go to work.  But our conversations with them can open up new understandings for us.  Our conversations can be like opening a window: a window of possibility where we can see, from another point of view, who we are and who we might become.


In our passage for today from Matthew’s gospel, three strangers from the East come to pay homage to the baby Jesus.  They are wise and learned men.  They have studied the stars for years.  Their years of study have convinced them that one special star will lead them to a newborn king.  So when they see that star on the rise, they set out.  After a long journey, they find the child.  Filled with joy, they kneel before him and open treasure boxes of gifts fit for a king.


Mary and Joseph have never met these men.  They’re strangers.  They may not even speak the same languge.  But the body language of the wise men speaks loud and clear.  They bow down before the child.  They present their gifts.  Matthew doesn’t report on any conversation they might have had with Jesus’ parents.  But we can imagine that Joseph and Mary are intrigued by their appearance.  We can imagine that Mary is fascinated by their clothing: as wealthy men, they probably wore fabrics she had never seen before.  She marvels to see threads of such bright and beautiful colors, woven in elaborate designs.


As a skilled craftsman, Joseph must be curious about the construction of those treasure chests.  And the gifts themselves are amazing.  These wise and learned men are from a different world: a world where people have studied the movements of the stars for centuries.  A world where aromatic spices like frankincense and myrrh are grown to be harvested and preserved, sealed up in beautiful bottles.  What do the men say to Mary and Joseph as they reverently place their before Jesus?  Do they say things that people usually say when a child is born?  Simple words like “Congratulations!”  or “What a beautiful child!” don’t seem like enough to express their wonder and joy.


To Mary and Joseph, these men are consequential strangers.  They are outside the tight web of relationships that hold them close to their families and friends.  They don’t share a history and they won’t share a future.  But these men open for them a window of possibility; a window where they can see who Jesus is and who he will become.

Come from a distant land, the wise men open Mary and Joseph’s eyes to just what God has in mind with the birth of this child.  With the gifts they bring: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, they proclaim that this child is a king.  This child, born in a backwater, on the margins of an empire, is a king.  This child, born to people who work with their hands, is a king.  This would be a radical statement at any time, but to people like Mary and Joseph, who have lived for generations under the harsh oppression of Rome, this is nothing short of political dynamite.


With their gifts, these strange and learned men are saying that Jesus is the true king, and that Herod, the king who had been set up by the Romans, is the false one.  With their reverent bows in worship, they are saying that Herod is an impostor, with no legitimate claim to the throne.  Jesus, now born to usher in the Kingdom of God, is the rightful ruler.


The wise men call Jesus the King of the Jews.  As they bow before him in their beautiful robes, they declare that he, and only he, is deserving of their full allegiance.  They have come from a distant land to worship him.  Their arrival at his cradle means that, while Jesus is King of the Jews, his reign extends to them as well.  In making that journey from a distant land, they’re saying that Jesus’ reign is not limited to one locality.  As they worship, they are saying that Jesus’ reign is not limited to the Jewish people. They bring gifts fit for a king because his reign will bring God’s justice and peace: not only to the Jews, but to the whole world.  They open a window of possibility; a window where Mary and Joseph can see who Jesus is and who he will become.


As we heard in our scripture last week, after the wise men departed, Herod issued an edict that all children in Jerusalem, who were two years old and under, must be put to death.  Herod knew a threat when he saw one.  He wouldn’t tolerate even the possibility that one of those children would grow up to push him off the throne.  Just in time, thanks to an angel’s warning, Mary and Joseph flee with their baby to Egypt.


As they pack up and hit the road, headed for unfamiliar territory, what do you suppose Joseph and Mary say to each other?  In the midst of their anxiety, do they remind each other of the wise men’s words of praise?  As they pack up the gold and frankincense and myrrh, do they draw inspiration from the visit of those consequential strangers?  Do they take courage from the message that the child they cradle is the hope of humanity: hope for peace and love and justice, not only for them, but for all the world?


What about you and me?  What gifts might you and I receive from strangers in our lives?  What gifts might we receive from people we don’t know?  We have a tendency to be closed, even to fear the strangers among us.  I think that’s human nature to some extent.  But could we resist that tendency to be closed?  Could we be more open to people who are strange to us?  Could we be open to receiving what they have to offer?


What might you and I learn from the consequential strangers we encounter in our lives?  How might they be God’s messengers to us?  How might they open for us a window of possibility where we can see, from another point of view, who we are and who we might become?








Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Epiphany Sunday