Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
January 8, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The life of faith is, or at least should be, a life of questions. Faith raises so many questions. We all have questions, lots of questions. Very conservative Christian churches to the contrary notwithstanding, asking questions about the faith is good. It is necessary. The Letter of James says that faith without works is dead; and, Martin Luther to the contrary notwithstanding, there is a sense in which that is true. But I believe that it is more true that faith without questions is dead. It becomes passive acceptance and acquiescence, not a vital, living faith. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves asking the wrong questions. That happened to me this last week as I grappled with Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. I thought: The star led the magi to Jesus, and I asked: What is our star? What, if anything, guides us to Jesus? Is it the Bible? Or the church? Is it prayer? It’s not that those are bad questions. It’s not that there are any impermissible questions. There aren’t. But as I pondered that question of what our star is that leads us to Jesus I thought of one answer that made me think that I had been asking the wrong question all along. I wondered if our star were the lives of the saints of the Christian tradition. That is, was our star the witness of Christian people in their lives to the truth and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? And I thought: Wait a minute! We shouldn’t be asking “what is our star.” We should be asking “Are we a star for others, and how can we be a star for others, guiding them to the truth and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” So that’s what I want to talk to you about this morning, about being a star.
The story of the magi and their mysterious star is familiar enough. Matthew tells it in a few short verses. An unspecified number of wise men or magi—that’s right. Did you notice that Matthew doesn’t actually tell us that there were three of them? However many they were, they saw an unusual star and followed it to Jerusalem. They had an encounter with the wicked king Herod, then came to Bethlehem and found the baby Jesus and his mother Mary. When they did they “were overwhelmed with joy.” They paid Jesus “homage” and gave him three presents—that’s actually where the number three for the wise men comes from—of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They had a dream telling them not to return to Herod, so they returned to their own country by another road.
The most striking image in the story is for many of us the star. It is no ordinary star. It guides the wise men across the desert from their homeland, presumably in Persia far to the east of Jerusalem. It leads them directly to the house—yes, in Matthew it’s a house not a stable—where Jesus is. The star leads the way. It guides the men to Jesus. It is how they know that there is something remarkable happening, and it is how they find their way to that remarkable thing. The star has become a fixture of our Christmas nativity scenes. We often see it depicted as shining above a stable. That’s a mixing of two different stories from Matthew and Luke, but never mind. The important point for us this morning is that the star was how the wise men found Jesus.
About the wise men themselves Matthew tells us very little, only that they come from the east and that they are “magi,” which probably means that they were Persian astrologers. We can assume, I think, that they were spiritual seekers. They were looking for something, something transcendent, something divine, something representing the presence of God. Why else would they embark on the long and perilous journey across the desert from Persia to Judea? The wise men were spiritual seekers, and the star led them to what they were looking for. It led them to Jesus. It led them to Emmanuel, God With Us.
The wise men of Matthew’s story were seekers. We aren’t likely to encounter any Persian astrologers here in Monroe these days, but we encounter spiritual seekers all the time. We live in what has been called the “none zone,” an area of the country where a very high percentage of the people answer “none” to the question of their religious affiliation. Church attendance in western Washington is among the lowest of any region of the country. The big community evangelical churches like to present themselves as successful. They’re a lot bigger than we are, but even they fail to reach most of the people in our communities. We live in a place where our practice of attending church regularly makes us a minority among an un-churched majority.
That doesn’t mean, however, that all of our un-churched fellow residents of this area are not spiritual seekers. Many of them are. They will tell you that they are spiritual but not religious. They will study Buddhism or some other non-Christian religious tradition, hoping to find whatever it is that they are seeking but not finding in Christianity as they know it. They will buy lots of books on spirituality. They will go into the woods, climb mountains, or sail Puget Sound seeking a connection with the transcendent. They don’t attend church or any other religious institution, but they are spiritual seekers.
Those ancient spiritual seekers that we know as the wise men of Matthew’s story found a magical star to guide them to that for which they were seeking. It doesn’t work that way for people today, not that it ever really did. We’re dealing with story after all, not history. Still, seekers need a guide if their seeking is not to be aimless, undirected, and random. Aimless, random, undirected seeking may eventually lead the seeker to something valuable, but it very well may never do that; and even if it does it’s likely to take a very long time. Seekers need a guide. Seekers need a star. When seekers look at American Christianity, do they see a star? If so, what sort of star do they see?
I’m afraid that the answer is yes, they see a star; but it is an ugly star that repels more than it attracts. They see the Roman Catholic Church, and rather than see the great spiritual treasures within the Catholic tradition they see a male hierarchy more concerned with its own power than with the welfare of the faithful. They see the priest sex abuse scandal and the hierarchy’s attempts to cover it up. They see televangelists more concerned with milking money out of the flock than with real spiritual care. They see preachers proclaiming a “prosperity gospel” that focuses on material wellbeing not spiritual wellbeing. They see supposedly Christian politicians pandering to the most reactionary, socially obscurantist elements of the electorate. They see a fear based faith claiming to be the only way people can avoid eternal damnation by an angry and violent God. All in all, it’s a pretty ugly picture. It’s a pretty ugly star, more like an ugly, garish, flashing neon light in front of a discount religious emporium of false truths and spiritual dead ends than a true guiding star. No wonder so many spiritual seekers today will have nothing to do with Christianity.
And we know that none of that truly represents the faith of Jesus Christ. We know that the faith of Jesus Christ has divine power to answer the seeker’s longing. The faith of Jesus Christ can be the treasure to which a star guides seekers, but where’s the star? Who’s the star? There’s only one possible answer to that question. We’re the star, or rather we are called to be the star. The light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ shining through this congregation has led some seekers here. We received some of them into formal membership just this morning. But there are so many more seekers out there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ as we proclaim and live it here is perhaps not the answer for all of them, but surely it can be the answer for some of them.
So the question for us is: How can we be a star? Not a star in the sense of a celebrity whom everyone idolizes and fawns over. It isn’t about us, after all. How can we be a star in the sense of the wise men’s star? A star that leads spiritual seekers to a spiritual home, to an epiphany, to an encounter with the living God and the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we be a star? By how we live together as Christian community. By how we reflect God’s love for all people in the way that we live in the world. By how we proclaim Jesus Christ’s Gospel of unconditional grace for all people. By how we respond to Christ’s call to build the Kingdom of God, that promised time of peace through justice for all people. That’s how. May God give us the insight to see how to do it and the energy and the courage actually to do it. Amen.