Monday, December 13, 2010

Star of Guidance

This is the third in an Advent series “The Stars Tell the Story”. 
Scripture is Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the Wise Men’s Star.

What if the wisemen had GPS?  There’s a Christmas card that depicts the three wisemen, on their three camels, ignoring the star over the stable and studying the little devices they hold in their hands.  “We’re close!” they say as they pull up to the wrong stable.  “Mine just said, “You have arrived at your destination.”
    Lucky for us, the wise men were not guided by GPS - but by an alignment of the stars.  We have no idea what they saw in the sky.  I mean, there are theories,  comet - planets - supernova - but we have no way to know.  What we know about their guidance system is contained in this marvelous story.  So let’s take a look at what the story tells us about what guided them on their journey to Jesus so long ago. 
    First of all, the story tells us they were guided by wisdom, not foolishness.
    They were wise men.  They were astrologers.  We tend to think of astrology as a superstition - it seems silly to believe that what’s going on with the stars and planets has any effect on us as we go around making decisions, facing challenges, getting from yesterday to tomorrow.  But astrology has been very important part of various cultures through history.  Chinese, Hindu, Arab, Persian, Greeks, Mayans . . . they all had their versions of star studying and portent seeking.  I was also interested to learn this week how some of the words and expressions we use carry some of their “flavor” from astrology.  I’d never thought about the origin of the word “disaster” for instance:   comes from the negative prefix: DIS and the latin word for star: ASTER.  Bad star.  Ill-starred.  Comes from the time when bad events were thought to be brought on by bad “stars”.   Same thing for FLU.  “Influenza” was named that because doctors in the middle ages believed that epidemics could be caused by the bad “INFLUENCES” of planet and star alignments. 
    One article - OK- I’ll admit it, it was Wikipedia - cited a study that said 31% of Americans still believe in astrology.  I find that hard to believe.  At least 31% of me does.  But I would believe that 31% of americans read their horoscope occassionally.  I don’t do that.  Because I realized that, without one ounce of belief, I still had stray thoughts that “explained” things through the little ditty I’d read.   Oh, yeah, I’d say when I’d get irritated or annoyed:  “Long buried resentments could surface today.”  Or when I pigged out at lunch, I’d excuse myself by remembering:  “Self-control will be harder today.” 
    It’s just silly.  But I think it is a hint of how much we long to bring our lives into some sort of alignment with the larger and better purpose - some say “of the universe”.  we say, “of God”.   There is a human need to find something significant in our day to day.  I think that’s a little star planted in us by God.  The astrologers had a principle:  “As in heaven, so on earth.” 
We say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”   And I don’t think there is anything silly about letting ourselves be guided by what we think is heaven’s intent.  In fact the message of Christmas is that Heaven has come down to earth so that we might SEE what human life is supposed to be about, how it is supposed to be lived, what Heaven intends human life to be.   When we look to Jesus, we see God and God’s purpose for us.  We see ‘heaven and earth’ together.
    And being guided by that star - of deep wisdom - is very very wise.

Set our GPS on hope, not fear.  The scriptures contrast the other people in the story with Herod.  The wise men, Mary, Joseph - - - all of them acted out of hope.  Herod acted out of fear.  They sought the child.  Herod feared the child.  The part of the story we never read, but which is always there is that Herod was so afraid that he killed the children of Bethlehem.  The difference between hope and fear is the difference between life giving and life affirming actions and violence and death. 
    Whe we decide to do something, or not to do something, we can check with ourselves:  Am acting out of hope that God is going to act in the world, or the fear that God means us harm?
And to be led by hope. 

    The wise men were guided by the promise of joy - not the fear of sorrow.  My favorite verse in this whole story is ‘when they reached the place where the child was, they were overwhelmed with joy and worshipped exceedingly’    I hope that each of us can remember a moment or two in life when we were led to exactly the right place, exactly the right person, exactly the right action.  And we felt that incredible joy of being able to do exactly the right thing.  At the birth of a child.  At the decision to share our life with one person, through thick and thin.  At the right job, or the moment to retire.  The Christmas morning when we are all together with our family in Spirit if not in fact, and God blesses us with the joy of memories of the past and dreams of the future.  These moments of joy - and the quest to experience them again - are the stars that can guide us.during this season and indeed, throughout our whole lives.  Let the star of joy guide you.

    And the wise men were guided by love.  Always.  Love.  I know the word love isn’t even found in this passage.   But love is there.  And here’s how we know:  The wise men brought gifts to the Christ child.  Gifts are expressions of love.  You can give without loving.  But you can’t love without giving.  This season of the year gifts take up alot of our time and attention.  We can torture ourselves and others with the obsessive and never satisfactory quest for the perfect gift.  I got caught doing this yesterday.  I had to go to a Christmas party and take a white elephant gift for an exchange with a bunch of women.  And I wanted my gift to be the one people fought over.  I wanted the moment my gift was unwrapped to be the one when everyone there thought, “Well, isn’t that just the nicest!  How I wish I’d thought to bring something like that!”  Needless to say - it wasn’t like that at all.  Basically, every gift was junk.  Some of it was expensive junk and some of it was disappointingly crummy junk.  But the gifts were not what the party was about.  The party was about how much this group of women loves each other.  The real gift was seeing pictures of grandchildren, and hearing about children’s weddings and even (this was a tough gift for me to appreciate!) hearing what medicine everybody was on now that we are all getting older and less able to cope without medical interventions.  The real gift was that one of us, who had moved to Chicago, drove all the way down here to be with us. 
    We can worry about how much we should spend, and whether the person we’re gifting needs or wants what we have decided to give.  But the wise men brought gold, frankinscense and myrhh.  Hardly the most soughtafter baby presents.  I think it was Letty Russell who said, “If it had been three wise women - they would have brought diapers, blankets and a hot dish.”  But the gold for a king, the frankinscense for a priest and the myrhh to ease suffering and honor death - these turned out to be right in ways that better, more practical gifts could never match.  We can worry about “the right gift” Or we can be like the wisemen and just bring our best and hope that somehow, in ways we can’t foresee, the gifts will be expressions of love.  We need to recognize that the relationships we cherish will be strengthened, not by the packages we wrap and unwrap, but by the act of giving a bit of our time, our money, our attention to others.   That is love - giving something of ourselves.  And it is a star that we can look to strengthen our relationships with God and the people with which we share our lives.  

    Being led by the stars of wisdom, or hope, or joy and of love is not as being directed to our destination by a GPS.  I’ve got a minute here, so I am going to share a quote from the pastor of Christ Church in Philadelphia which makes alot of sense to me: 
It strikes me that many a spiritual person today—from the doctrinally certain to the skeptically seeking—desire a religious life built upon GPS simplicity rather than “a star rises” complexity.  So many of us want to be able to type into a little box, “I want to know God,” and have it tell us to turn right or left, say this prayer or that, read then verse then that one, and we will then arrive, easily, without being lost once.  Or, being already in the fold, we want to type in, “Why do I feel alone,” or, “Why does the one I love suffer,” and have the answers spoken to us by a device we can turn off if we think we know better. 
    The wise men learned that the star draws but does not direct us.  We must struggle to find our way.  And, as they knew, there is no final destination, simply stopping points along the way where we rest and pray, and then gather our things and journey further.

    As we journey further in this season, in our faith, in our life - we are invited to look to the stars to guide us.   With the wise men, let’s let ourselves be led on - by the stars of wisdom, hope, joy and love.  Let us pray.
Our heavenly Father, you who set the stars in the skies and placed us here on earth,
we ask you to guide us toward Your Holy Presence in Jesus Christ. 
Give us Wisdom to seek your will on earth. 
Give us the Hope that you are working for human good. 
Give us Joy in the journey and always,
give us hearts so filled with your Love that they overflow during this and every season.  
In the name of the Child of Bethlehem we pray.  Amen.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stars of Promise

Sermon Start -
Genesis 15:1-??
Look up - count the stars -

From this week’s news:  The universe may glitter with far more stars than even Carl Sagan imagined when he rhapsodized about billions upon billions. A new study suggests there are a mind-blowing 300 sextillion of them, or three times as many as scientists previously calculated. That is a 3 followed by 23 zeros. Or 3 trillion times 100 billion.
The estimate, contained in a study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature, is based on findings that there are many more red dwarf stars -- the most common star in the universe -- than once thought.
"We're seeing 10 or 20 times more stars than we expected," van Dokkum said.
When van Dokkum and Conroy crunched the incredibly big numbers, they found that it tripled the estimate of stars in the universe from 100 sextillion to 300 sextillion.
That's a huge number to grasp, even for astronomers who are used to dealing in light years and trillions, Conroy said.
"It's fun because it gets you thinking about these large numbers," Conroy said. Conroy looked up how many cells are in the average human body -- 50 trillion or so -- and multiplied that by the 6 billion people on Earth. And he came up with about 300 sextillion.
So the number of stars in the universe "is equal to all the cells in the humans on Earth -- a kind of funny coincidence," Conroy said.
newspaper article says there are far more stars than astronomers knew about before.  It’s not that the stars are countless.  But you have to count them a long, long time to get them all. 

That’s why God used the canopy of stars in the night sky to communicate to Abraham the almost infinite promise of God’s goodness and love.  He made Abraham a promise, that he would have a large family, which would be blessed and that through Abraham’s kin, the world would be blessed.  And when Abraham asked how he was supposed to believe that, considering that he didn’t even have a son - heck, he didn’t even have a daughter at this point! - God took him outside his tent, into the desert night, and had him look up and try to count the stars.  He said, “You can be sure that I’ll make your family as numerous as the stars in the heavens.  And they will shine as bright.” 

God swore by the stars - made them a sign of his faithfulness and steadfast love.  In Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo is proclaiming his love, he says, “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear . . .” to which Juliet replies, “Oh, swear not by the moon, the inconstant month, which monthly changes in her circled orb, lest thy love prove likewise variable.” 

God doesn’t use the moon to talk to Abraham about the promise. He points to the stars. 

Stars were a sign of God’s promise to Abraham - to make Abraham’s family a great nation - to use this particular people to bring about God’s plan for humanity and the earth. 

As time went on, (and on and on) it became clear that Abraham’s family, though they had a special relationship with God, were not willing and/or able to redeem the world. 
They got sidetracked.  They fought amongst themselves.  They forgot to trust God’s promise.  They messed up.  Instead of bringing light to the world, they started living in the shadows themselves. 

And the only part of the promise they remembered was the part about their particular tribe being blessed - chosen - special.  They forgot the part about being a blessing to the world.  But they remembered and they hung onto their own specialness and often fell into the trap of worshipping their own “specialness” instead of the God. 

Whenever that happens, God’s faithful promise is in peril.  It looked as if the plan is fatally flawed.  The stars . . . the shining . . .  not going to happen. 

And yet, a promise is a promise.  And God had promised a night sky’s worth of descendents to Abraham, to make a huge clan that would bless the world by living in it as God’s family.  God doesn’t renege on his promises.  But when he finds that one way of fulfilling them is not possible, he finds another, better way to make the promise come true.  So God sent Jesus to be born, live and die in order to redeem the world and expand the family of folks who are God’s childen.

That’s what Christmas is - a more complete, better way for God to form a community that loves Him and shows his Love to the world. The New Testament is clear that now it is you and I who are God’s people - the ones God has chosen to bless and to be a blessing.

The “blood” relationship of being descended from Abraham became less important than the relationship made through Jesus’ blood on the cross. This is what John the Baptist said to the religious folks who came out to the desert to see what he was up to:  “Don’t think you can say, “Oh, we’re children of Abraham.  God can make children of Abraham out of these rocks.”

Friends, we are the rocks. We are heirs of God’s promise, not through Abraham, but through the blood of Jesus Christ, we are God’s special people.  We are the ones who have inherited the promise that we will be blessed and we will be a blessing. So we’re going to do something together to symbolize that fact.  Here.  I’m giving you each a potato - because it looks like a rock.  Each of you take a rock.  Hold it in your hand.  Not very shiny or sparkly, is it?  Now take the knife and cut it in two.  Take half of it and imagine a star on the cut face of the rock.  You might want to draw the star, lightly, with a pencil.  It could be a four point star, or a five point star, like the ones on your bulletin cover.  Or a six point star, like the Star of David.  Maybe you can envision a star with the same number of points as you have members of your family.  The Star of Bethlehem, that I saw in the Church of the Nativity, over the place where Jesus was born was a fourteen point star.  So a star can have any number of points.  It doesn’t really matter.  But take the knife and carve the edges of the potato away until you reveal the star shape.  It will just take a few cuts.  Then you can pass the knife to the person next to you.  You’ll have little pieces of potato left over.  Just put them on your bulletin until your pew is done, then you can put them in the little bag so we don’t leave a big mess here in the sanctuary. 

And I know this will take some time.   Let this time be a time of prayer, in which we ask God to seal the promise on our hearts.  Maybe this will be a time to ask ourselves a crucial question:  This Christmas -  How is God’s promise to bless and redeem the world coming true in your life and the lives that you touch?  We have some time now, and as we sing, and during the offering.  Don’t rush.  We’re on God’s time now. 

And what I want you to do is to bring your star up with you when you take communion.  After you have taken communion - shared in Jesus’ body and blood  - shown through that ritual that you belong to him and he is part of you forever - then go to the table and and dip your star it in the paint and stamp one of the squares of cloth that I showed the kids during the children’s sermon.  Like I told them, we’re going to make an Advent banner of stars.

And the banner will remind us that God’s promise to Abraham - sworn on the stars above - is now God’s promise to us:  We will be blessed.  And we will be a blessing.