A sermon preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC
January 5, 2014
When I began my first year at seminary, it was as a religiously wounded young person who had been spiritually mistreated throughout my youth and young adulthood, in the same way that I imagine many of us in this congregation have been. When I was in high school, my personal salvation had been linked to all kinds of things: I must not drink, I must not be pro-choice, I must not have sex before marriage (in fact I really should not even kiss before marriage), and God forbid that I might come out as queer. During my sophomore year, one of my teachers told the only Jewish student in school, in front of 30 other students, that she would go to Hell if she did not “accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.” To this day, I shake to remember the abuse of power and the anti-semitism inherent to my teacher’s action.
To be clear: there were many things that were perfectly nice about my high school experience, and I also remember parts of those years as more nuanced than the broad strokes with which I’m painting now. But what I felt, I know to be true. And I felt confused and hurt by many of the teachings endorsed by those in leadership at my school. And, despite my misgivings, the psychological, social, and spiritual consequences of challenging these teachings proved to be too stressful for my teenaged self. I feared the wrath of God. So I believed what I needed to believe; I said what I needed to say, and I hoped it would be enough to help me escape the fiery confines of Hell – which, others assured me, was a very real place.
By the time I arrived at seminary, I had done enough processing to know that none of these things would condemn me to an eternity in Hell – I even knew that there were reasonable Christians who doubted Hell’s existence altogether! Nevertheless, on my first day at seminary, I told people that I was “culturally Lutheran” – but I couldn’t quite bring myself to carry the identity of “Christian”. Unable to make sense of how to rectify the pain of my adolescence, I had six months earlier left Christianity behind in frustration and anger, telling myself I was only going to seminary as an academic pursuit.
And yet, by the end of the semester, although I could not yet identify it, and wouldn’t for years to come – and although I could not interpret it, and although I did not know from whence it came, still I knew that a star called to me from out of the deep. And I felt deeply compelled to follow it.
We humans have long been taken with the night sky, searching for answers in the patterns of the stars’ passing, or traversing the oceans with the north star as our faithful guide. We read our horoscopes (albeit with varying degrees of seriousness), predicated by the locations of the constellations at a given moment in time. We tell futuristic stories with characters who are pioneers on space’s next frontier, and we catapult our astronauts and galactic machinery to places like Mars, and the Moon.
The stars hold so much mystery for us, and yet we are surrounded by them. We are hemmed in, crowded, enfolded by all the questions and ideas and possibilities the universe has to offer.
Perhaps for this reason it is something of a shame that our story of the wise men and the star has lost some of its original context. Christian tradition determined long after the time of Matthew that there were three wise men, and that in fact they were kings, named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Lovely though the story may be, the Magi were not kings but royal priests thought to come from Persia, in the East, and they were often advisors to kings and leaders. They were dream-interpreters, sages, teachers, and yes – they were followers of the stars.
Richard Horsley, author of The Liberation of Christmas, claims that the Magi were figures of religio-political importance in the ancient middle east, known for their wisdom, but also for their political role in affirming or denying divine support for a king. The Christmas story we tell – of the Magi’s recognition of the infant King of the Jews in the time of Herod – is at once a political story of rejecting the onerous and oppressive rule of Rome, AND it is a profoundly religious story of reading the symbolism in the night sky and following the star to Bethlehem.
Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong adds his voice to the mix on the topic of the magi. Like Horsley, he says rather than focusing on whether the story of the star and the magi are historically or literally true, as readers of the text we ought to seek rather the truths inherent to the story. In doing so, Spong points to the use of the Jewish literary tradition known as midrash, which expounds upon Biblical stories, often filling in gaps in the storyline, and bringing new meanings to familiar ideas and motifs.
For example, the author of Matthew may have been using midrash when constructing the story of the Magi and the star. By inserting the Magi into the story – these mysterious teachers from a faraway nation – Matthew made new today’s prophetic text, Isaiah 60, which prophesies all nations being drawn to the light of God. Similarly, Matthew gave reference to texts like Numbers 22, which tells the story of a seer from the East who sees the star of David at its rising. The recasting of these familiar stories within a new context was never intended to be understood as literally true. Instead, it was a literary tool, employed to convey a meaning about the world as it should be: a world free of oppression, a world in which love abounds, a world in which an equal number of stars carpets all of our skies.
Knowing what we do about the Magi, I like to think of them not as followers of just one star, but as perpetual star-chasers. What dreams, and whose dreams, had these Magi divined before discovering this infant, Jesus? What mysteries unfolded in their minds as they gazed up into the star-studded sky? And as they departed along their way, what new star guided their path?
The gleaming star of Bethlehem represents so much more than a pretty story. Depending on how the story is told, if we are lucky, the star can be the voice of God, calling us to the place where human life encounters the Divine;
Or, depending on how the story is told, the Star may also be portrayed as the single beacon of truth leading all of humanity to one and only path to salvation.
That might not sound so bad, unless you overlay it with memories like I have from high school, or other experiences you might have had in your life. For those of us who identify as inclusive or progressive Christians, we often struggle with the knowledge that some parts of our tradition intentionally, even hatefully, exclude others. We struggle with the categories of “saved” and “unsaved” – perhaps we might even wonder where we would fall on the spectrum. Certainly I am Christian. But do I “accept Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior?”
The question reads more as a cultural signifier than a confession of faith.
And so we are presented with more questions: What does it mean to be Christian today? Who is it that we say we are, and how should we communicate that identity to others? What role does the title “Christian” assign to us – in what ways does it restrict us, and in what ways does it release us to be who it is that we say we are?
The answers to these questions are as varied as the stars in the sky. Each one can lead us to a infinite number of places, to magnetic black holes and cream milky ways and gleaming northern lights. One could get lost amidst the deep.
And yet, here we sit, all together, on this very frigid January morning. The temperature today will not make it above zero, and school is cancelled statewide tomorrow because it’s so cold. Our church has no parking lot, and exposed skin can get frostbite in less than ten minutes in these temperatures – and still – here we are, gathered together today.
What star compelled you here this morning?
Was it the star of hope, that small but steady flare that rises early in the twilight, climbs high into the atmosphere, and does not fade ‘til dawn?
Or was it the star of grief? That star which originates in a big bang!, streaking hot across the sky, pummeling downward with breakneck speed until it settles – but never coming fully to rest?
Was it the constellation of community, which weaves its graceful dance across the night, twinkling like a cluster of festive flames across the universe?
Or was it the star of wonder, peering out from the darkest depth of the most velvet black, the light of it having traversed millions of miles and eons of years to find its way, right here, right now, to shine down on just
For our lives our rife and ripe with a vast carpet of stars. They are beyond us and behind us and within us and between us, each one glinting a clandestine whisper of love.
Like the Magi of the East, the stars we chase are multiple. There is not only one star in the Universe, waiting ominously to be discovered. No, there are infinite quantities of constellations, each with its own meaning as they splash their way through the night.
The stars lead us to each other. They lead us to the Sacred. The stars lead us home.