Jan. 5, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jan 5, 2020 in Christmas, Epiphany, Sermons

The Epiphany

January 5, 2020

“They set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” They followed that star for some time, arriving in Jerusalem, where they likely presumed it would lead. But after their trek all the way to Jerusalem, the one born to be king of the Jews is not there. The ask Herod, and get rerouted over to Bethlehem, and off they go again, this time arriving at the humble place where the infant lays, watched over by a young mother and an ordinary carpenter. How did they know this was it? Wouldn’t they have expected something grander or more king-like? If they’d known he wasn’t in Jerusalem, with all its beauty and glory, how can they be sure they’ve found the king of the Jews in stable in Bethlehem? The same way we do; by following the wild holy star no matter where it leads, and then kneeling low enough to let it touch our souls.

What a contrast we have in this story; a far-off radiant star shining forth and leading the way from the heavens, and the humble stable not even meant for people to live in, earthy, smelly, dreary, and uninspiring. Consider the tension between these two opposites, how it plays out in life again and again; a long-standing shining belief that all are created equal, and yet all around us we see how frustrating frequent the opposite occurs. We hear campaign platforms of great promise, and then discover once again how hard it is for such things to come to pass in a system often mired in its own polarity and tensions. The star represents what is perfect, the manger is all about what is possible. Having recently celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s we may have seen the contrast between that Norman Rockwell/Hallmark ideal of one big happy family; for many this perfect ideal dissolved as one child overshadows another, unresolved arguments arise, visitation schedules grow tense, hurtful words are spoken, or maybe its heartbreak over one who is missing. What is perfect and what is possible are not only in contrast, they are often in tension with each other. We want so badly to have the perfect, that the reality gets tougher and tougher to manage. So we might work to adopt which one we think offers the best perspective.

However, keeping one’s eye only on the star, we miss the stable altogether. That stargazer might be visionary, but they won’t be much help in dealing with real-world messiness and human relationships of any depth. Yet, if all we see is manger life and the barn, never pausing to look up at the stars, our world grows flat and dull, filled with plodding drudgery and days seem endlessly ordinary as we bitterly wish things were different.

Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible”—which to me, inspires hope—until things go horribly wrong and we realize ‘possible’ could go either way. So, some avoid it all because there’s nothing being said or done that measures up to their idea of perfection and adjusting to what is humanly possible requires more tolerance or compromise than they’re willing to undertake. I hear from people who want nothing to do with ‘organized religion’ or a faith community, presumably because it feels limiting, stifling. Yet refusing to engage the question I think has more to do with a reluctance to sort through their ideas about God’s proactive role (or they presume inactive role) in a world of imperfect outcomes and human failings. Choosing neither star nor stable can leave us in a vacuous existence with little concern or accountability to anyone but ourselves.

Neither one alone is enough, (though we all know someone who seems exactly that way) and so most of us try to live with one eye out to follow that star, and the other on the path so we don’t stumble in the dirt. It’s a back-and forth or a both at once, because we know either one taken as our ‘all’ will stretch the tension so tight it may break, and we lose touch with that aspect we spurned. Today the magi are who we remember followed the star, because they were convinced it was a heavenly sign of something of great earthly importance. Did they imagine such a brilliant wild star would lead them to a simple lowly stable? Their response reminds us that God uses what is ordinary and unexpected to do that which is extraordinary and holy. They immediately know that wherever it is they have arrived; it is a holy place and time. They saw the child and they knelt down and worshiped him, opening their chests to give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It doesn’t matter if the star can be proved to have happened or not, or if any magi really came following it, because the truth of this story is more powerful than the provability; as the late Rev. Theodore Ferris said, “Every star sooner or later leads you to a stable.”

What are the stars you’ve looked up at and followed? One star shined with romance and family warmth, leading a young couple to marry and create a family, adopting all the children they could manage because of the possibilities they can imagine. Even so, their star comes to stop over a stable of dirty diapers, sinks full of dishes, a mailbox full of bills. The star shining with justice and liberty leads someone to law school, in hopes of making a difference in the lives of those most in need of it. That star may well stop over a public defender’s office with an unmanageable caseload or clients our lawyer believes are more often guilty than innocent. Some of you saw a star shining with wholeness and healing light, leading you to rise to reach for medical or nursing school as you imagined curing the sick — until it stopped over the stable of a practice filled with regulations, limited resources, and only six minutes allowed per patient. Clergy and ministry volunteers also see that star, shining with a perfect love that knows no limits. It is all s/he wants to do, and those ministers are shaken to find their star stopping over a diminishing congregation or a building falling apart, people wanting service more than to serve, or expecting perfection instead of what is possible.

The gospel today with our magi following that star tells us that a great deal of life is spent ‘coming to the stables,’ and we can do so bearing witness to that star! We are being shown how to illuminate the conditions of the possible with the Christ light of the perfect. It is both glorious and humbling, and we can see it all around us. These learned magi were those esteemed in their day just as we have people of great learning and wisdom now who lead the way, and yet even those magi came to what made them kneel in the dirt and hay and feel themselves so in awe of God’s incarnate Word that they worshiped him and then gave of the very best they had to offer. They may have known little or nothing about him, but they recognized so blessed a grace as to have been illumined by a star. All their knowledge brought them to that moment of humbling awe. Can we still do this? Can great thinkers and leaders, scientists and philosophers, workers, writers, CEOs, healers and more—still come into God’s house and be humbled by the holiness present in the incarnate One?

Certainly, some of them can and do—and you are here today. What about the others though, those not and never present? Who of today’s stargazers just look up to see the star, instead of getting up and going to where it leads? Just as certainly there were plenty of other magi who did not come that night! I wonder, are they unwilling to risk where that star will take them? Afraid of being led to a smelly imperfect metaphorical stable, knowing they wouldn’t want to risk kneeling down in the dirt and straw? What if that young couple didn’t follow the star to adopt those children and create a loving home, even though their star might stop over those dirty diapers and dishes? What if the healer or justice-seeker never went after the star because facing bureaucracy or patients who die, or cases lost, might be discouraging? Would no one be helped? It’s hard to fault them unless we’ve been there ourselves, unless we’ve felt that tension between the star and the stable in our own lives.

It is right there, even while kneeling in the animal muck and stable hay, we find the joy of none other than God in the manger in front of us. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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