Follow the Star!

This sermon was preached January 4, 2015, at Custer Road. You will find links to the TED talks, the Atlantic article, and the story of Officer William Stacy and Helen Johnson within the sermon text.

Some of you who are more on the Grinch side of the Christmas personality scale may have been disappointed because the Christmas decorations are still up at church and we sand The First Noel as an opening hymn. You’ve had your own decorations stored away for a week now, your tree is by the sidewalk waiting to be recycled, and you are ready to call your homeowner’s association because your neighbors still have their lights up. Well, you’ve obviously never heard the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. The Season of Christmas lasts 12 days—December 25 to January 6—so you need to redecorate your house for a couple more days! January 6, Tuesday, is the day of Epiphany, which we will observe today in worship. We are commemorating the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus.

Isaiah 60:1-6 foretold their visit centuries before Matthew recorded it:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Here’s Matthew’s account of the visit:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We don’t know much about these visitors—how many there were (we assume three because three gifts are presented), what exactly their profession was (Isaiah uses the word “king,” but Matthew uses “magi,” closer to wise men or scientists), or where they came from (maybe Iran?). We know a few things about them:

1.       They studied the stars, or were at least aware of stellar patterns. When they see a strange heavenly light they immediately notice it and follow it.
2.       The attribute the appearance of the star to a sign of some significant action.
3.       They respond with joy when the star stops moving—stars never do that—over Bethlehem
4.       They bring gifts appropriate to the occasion and person receiving them—including their own adoration
5.       They are obedient. When warned in a dream to go home via a different path they do it

Epiphany, then, is the day when we remember these magi. The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” or “appearance.” They attribute the arrival of the strange star to a meaning beyond scientific reason. The challenge for us today for Epiphany is not just to remember the magi’s visit—but to train our own eyes to see as they did. To take notice of God’s manifestation or appearance in our midst: recognize it, show our devotion, and take action so others will see the glory of God too.
And our world, even our own society, is in need of folk who are able to see the manifestation of God in our midst. 2014 was a very difficult year for our country, as we experienced brokenness and hurt by many. Reaction to the deaths of young black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner by the police, and subsequent decisions to not indict by juries, led to all kinds of protests and violence, including the murder of police officers in New York. Many folks responded to the tragedy in the only way they know how—Twitter and Facebook. In the days following these tragedies I saw way too many posts that ranged from heartbreak to “I don’t understand” to things you would only post from your phone or computer but never say to someone’s face. Race relations have not been in such a delicate place in our society for decades, and frankly, we’re trying to figure what to say and how to say it. It has not been easy.

I saw an article in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago that mentioned recent polling data. White evangelicals and Black Protestants were asked the same series of questions. When it came to religious expression, there was statistically very little difference, when compared to the larger society. For example:
Do you believe the Bible is the literal Word of God?
Society: 35% Yes
White evangelicals: 61% Yes
Black Protestants: 57% Yes

The two groups also share statistically similar beliefs in a personal God and an emphasis on individual salvation. But when asked about the state of the criminal justice system in America, a divide was evident: 66% of white evangelicals said blacks and other minorities received equal treatment as whites. 82% of African Americans disagreed with that statement. We also learned that white Americans’ core social networks are 91% white and only 1% black—and this translated to churches as well—86% of houses of worship are not diverse. How can two groups who worship and understand theology in very similar ways have such divergent ways of seeing the world outside the walls of the church? And what changes must we make ourselves—those of us in the church—so that wider change is possible in our society? I believe it starts with a rebirth of compassion. How we see others around us directly impacts how we relate to one another.

I watched a couple of TED talks recently that will help. One focused on our ability to see. This presenter was a social scientist, Emily Balcetis. She was interested in how folk motivate themselves to get into better physical shape. She wondered about the power of seeing things clearly. Two groups of people, one fit and the other not so much, were asked to judge the distance to a finish line. Unfit people saw the finish line farther away than those in good shape. But people who were motivated to exercise—even the more out of shape ones—those who were highly motivated saw the finish line more clearly and as 30% closer. What if we tuned our minds to see more clearly others’ hurt and suffering—what if we showed compassion—rather than rushing to judgment? The other TED talk, by Joan Halifax, spoke about compassion. She is a woman who had worked in hospice or death row situations for decades. She said the greatest enemies of compassion are pity, moral outrage, and fear. She said a society paralyzed by fear will find its capacity for compassion paralyzed.  She said you have to see clearly into the nature of suffering before it can be transformed. 

Jesus was teaching one day when this guy came up to him: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Good question. Many of us wonder the same thing. “Well,” Jesus said, “You know the Law: ‘Love your God with all your heart soul mind and strength,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “Ok,” they guy says: “Who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. This guy goes on a trip through the dangerous part of town, gets mugged, and is left for dead in the street. A couple of important folk see him, cross the road, and move on. But this one guy, a Samaritan, stops and care for him. Here’s the zinger: Jesus asks the guy: “Who was neighbor to the one who was hurt?” The guy can’t even say “Samaritan;” he simply replies, “The one who should mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Another time Jesus was preaching to a large crowd by the sea—one of only a couple of stories recorded in all four gospels. It had been a long day and the disciples were tired. So they go to Jesus: “Send the crowds away, so they can get themselves something to eat.” Not exactly the most compassionate response, right? What does Jesus say? “You give them something to eat.” This sort of changes the atmosphere of the conversation doesn’t it? So they find a kid’s lunch, bring it to Jesus, he prays over it, and directs the disciples to sit the folk down in large groups. Then they feed the hungry around them. 

Now today in the era of social media, people would post about these stories this kind of thing:
“Everyone knows Jericho to Jerusalem is dangerous. He should have known better.” #TakePrecautions
“The crowds should have brought their own lunches or at least some money for fast food.” #YoureOnYourOwn #NoHandouts

James 1:19 and 22: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr said about the Good Samaritan story: the priest and the Levite, who do not help the victim, think to themselves: “What will happen to me if I help?” The Samaritan thinks, “What will happen to him if I do not help?”

1 John 3:17-18: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

In the midst of an era of brokenness and hurt in our society, let us, as those who personify the manifestation and appearance of Christ, respond with compassionate action, rather than judgment and inaction. Remember what Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before people, so that they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13, 16).

Dr Howard Thurman was one of the great African American preachers of the 20th century. He served as Dean of the Chapel at Howard and Boston Universities for 20 years. We wrote a ton of books, as well as the poem that’s printed on the bulletin cover—which the choir sang this morning as their anthem:
"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."

When tensions were at their highest a few weeks between persons of color and the police, a remarkable thing happened at a Dollar store in Tarrant, Alabama, a town of about 6000 people. A woman, Helen Johnson, had several kids at home who had not eaten in a few days. She literally scraped together every penny she could find, totaling $1.25, and went to buy some eggs to feed the kids. The eggs were more than the $1.25, so she grabbed a handful of eggs and put them in her pockets. They broke. The store called the police. The officer, William Stacy, knew the woman and her circumstances. He himself had grown up poor. Instead of arresting Mrs Johnson, he bought her a dozen eggs. Compassion and action changed a potentially terrible situation. The episode was recorded and went viral on social media. Donations from literally all over the world poured in for Mrs Johnson’s family—truckloads of food—even a Christmas tree. Officer Stacy was given a commendation by the city.

After Tuesday it will be time to put away the Christmas decorations. You’ll come to worship next Sunday for the Parent World series and you will find no holly or candles or nativity. After Tuesday go ahead and encourage that neighbor who keeps her lights up until March to consider taking them down. But do not store away your Christian compassion. Train your eyes to see the kind of world God sees—a world full of the possibility for justice and mercy for all people. Do not turn away from injustice, but face it, challenge it, and change it. Like those magi of long ago, witness the manifestation of God in your midst, be faithful, diligent, and committed to the mission. Share your light. Follow your star. And God’s glory will appear and be manifest in the lives of more and more people. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.