Sunday, January 3, 2016

Not all stars are in the sky

Here is my sermon from today, based on the readings for the Epiphany especially Matthew 2:1-12:

The APc-16, my father's ship in World War II
 My father served in the U.S. Navy in World War II as the navigator on a small ship in the South Pacific. In those days, ships navigated by star and chart.

He used a sextant to pinpoint the position of stars against the horizon, and from that he could calculate the position of his ship on the sea.

The lives of his shipmates depended not only on the accuracy of his calculations, but also on the accuracy of his identification of the stars. He got very skilled at picking out stars – and could even identify stars through the breaks in the clouds.

When I was a small boy, my dad delighted in teaching me the names of the stars. I also learned from him that not all stars are in the sky.

Some stars shine deep within us.
This morning, in the Gospel of Matthew, we meet once again the magi – the “wise men” – as they follow a star to the crib of Jesus.
Let me point out a few details you might not have noticed in the story of the magi – or details that are missing: Nowhere in the biblical story does it say how many magi there were. Legend says three, and legend even gives them names: Melchoir, Casper and Balthazar.

But the Gospel of Matthew gives us no clue about how many magi there were – it could have been two or two hundred. Nor does the gospel give us their names.

Legend calls them kings – “We three kings of orient are.” But Matthew makes no such claim about their status or national origins.

And especially note this: No one other than the magi see the star. No one else.

There is nothing in the story to indicate that the star is brightly flying across the sky like the star depicted on Christmas cards. If it were, then King Herod and everyone else would have had no problem seeing it.

But only the magi see it. 

The star is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible except in the Gospel of Matthew. There are no other historical accounts of this star except here.

I don’t tell you this to explode myths. Rather, maybe we should consider that the star wasn’t in the sky at all. Maybe the star was inside the magi, burning so brightly inside them that they just had to follow wherever it led. 

They followed this star by faith and faith alone. The magi did not know where they were going, or how the journey would come out.

But they went anyway.

This is the definition of faith – following a star wherever it leads, and acting without being certain of the final destination or outcome.This star brought the magi a very long distance from their homes. They would not be the first to follow a star, nor the last.

These wise men – the Magi – follow their star to the infant Jesus. They come to behold and honor the newborn king. They discover that this king is like no other king before or since. He will grow to become a king with no throne, no scepter, no armies, no political power. He will wash the feet of his followers, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and share meals with outcasts, tax collectors, saints and sinners, and all who come to his table.

He will teach, he will pray, he will get frustrated and angry at times, and he will ultimately go to the Cross to show us that there is more to life than death. He will define his kingship by being a servant to all. 

This servant king brings not revenge and hatred, but reconciliation and healing. He brings what is called in Hebrew, shalom. 

As we hear the biblical stories unfold for us Sunday after Sunday this year, we will hear once again about people who follow stars. They will have strengths and flaws, courage and cowardice, and sometimes a mix of both. 

We will hear of a few people who get it right, and a lot more people who don’t. In short, most will be people like us. 

We too are called to follow the star inside us. We too are asked to follow by faith. I’ve been with you now almost six months. I’d like to offer a few observations about the star we are following by faith. 

First, this is a resilient congregation, and yes, a faithful congregation; this has always been so for more than a century. This congregation has a deep well of faith that has brought it through every trial and challenge that has come our way.

Yet there is not always a shared understanding of how to follow this star.  Do we follow this star primarily through outreach to the community with ministries like Open Table and the Living Room? Or do we follow this star primarily through music and arts like with Numina?

Or do we follow this star with education and formation for children and adults? Or follow with social events and hospitality? Or pastoral care for the sick and aged? 

All of these are important, but how do they fit together? 

Let me suggest that all we do connects by following the star of Christ’s gospel of shalomIf we begin in this place of reconciliation and healing – shalom – then all else will follow. This is where you will see the star.

I’ve heard much in the last few months that we have difficulty with communication.

But communication is not just about the transmission of events in newsletters and emails. We actually do that quite well.

Rather, our challenge is to connect with each other, to hear each other, to truly communicate about those things that really matter. This is why we need more opportunities to honestly share our stories and our perspectives so that we might trust each other more deeply.

We’ve been doing this in a series of congregational meetings, and we will be doing more in the new year. Please use these opportunities fully, and feel free to create opportunities for smaller conversations on your own.

We don’t need a sextant or chart to find this star. Our star is right here in front of us. We will see this star in sharing our worship and sacraments – in our common prayer and Holy Eucharist – Sunday after Sunday, week after week.

This is why it is so crucial for us to be here every Sunday, to worship fully together, to see this common star together. Jesus teaches us one thing counts above all else – that we should love God and love each other as God loves us. The first and great commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.

The second great commandment is like unto it: to love our neighbor – each other – as we love ourselves, and not just when it is easy, but especially when it is hard. 

It comes to us to bring God’s shalom alive for each other and alive for everyone who walks through these doors.

So let us go forth once again, as the Letter to the Ephesians proclaims, “in boldness and confidence through faith in him,” and let us follow this star wherever it may lead. Shalom, peace. AMEN

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