Sermon: Starlight Journey
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-3; Matthew 2:1-15
Date: January 6, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Let’s begin with a poem by Denise Levertov titled “Witness”:
Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
that witnessing presence.
I’m not sure if the poet wrote that in the shadow of Mt. Rainier but it’s a poem that plays well here. Sometimes the mountain is hidden from us in veils of cloud, sometimes we are hidden from the mountain by our inattention, apathy, fatigue, inertia. I recall friends of ours from New Jersey visiting us some years ago, when we lived in Tacoma. The mountain was never “out” on their first visit; I don’t think they believed in it. On their second visit we had some clear weather and Mount Rainier dominated the landscape. They asked how we could ever get any work done with such a glorious, majestic sight in our backyard. Easy, right? Inattention, apathy, fatigue, inertia.
Mountains aren’t God, but Denise Levertov’s poem reminded me of the rather episodic nature of spiritual journeys. Say God is like a mountain, always there but not always visible, a witness to all that unfolds as life goes on in the universe. We are living near the mountain but can’t always perceive that majestic presence. Sometimes we are the ones generating the clouded vision, forgetting or refusing to go down the path to see. Spiritual journeys are important to us, but not always our major focus, and not always fulfilling. Sometimes our seeking is sincere but feels frustrating, as if God is absent or hidden. Andrew Davis says in an introduction to a book of spiritual memoirs that our journey with God is “a meandering one, including ups and downs, stops and starts, U-turns and even dead-ends.” There’s a great deal of seeking going on, but “finding” is intermittent, in terms of our journey to or with God. For us average mortals, anyway.
Matthew’s story of the journey of the Magi is a narrative that shapes our Christian notions of spiritual journeys. One need not take it literally to ponder the truths it contains. I suspect that one of the reasons the story of the Magi’s journey to Christ is so endearing in our imaginations is the appeal of following a new star, following a shining beacon that led them from a faraway place to Christ. So many artist’s renderings of the star make it look glorious, huge, unmistakable. The very idea of a newborn star shining, moving, leading is enormously enticing. “…There ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” [Matthew 2:9] Who wouldn’t want to have such a fantastic cosmic guide? The real, the original OnStar GPS, leading the seekers to find God’s revelation in Christ.
We may feel a bit jealous of these three seekers who found what they were looking for, to their great joy. They had so much HELP from God. And they weren’t even among the chosen people—they were foreigners, likely Zoroastrian priests from the region we now know of as Iran and Iraq. Why don’t we get such assistance in our journey to or with God? Pouty face.
We may be so star-struck that we overlook a few features of this story of the journey of the Magi. For one thing, we don’t really have any idea how long their journey took, or what kinds of trials they met along the way. There must have been times when they had to make guesses, make U-turns, hole up for a few days when clouds obscured the stars. Since they were travelling as a group, there were probably occasional disagreements among themselves about what route to take to follow their cosmic signal.
They didn’t go straight to the right place, either. They went to Herod’s palace first. They went to the Capital City of the time, Jerusalem, supposing that a king would only be born at the center of power. It’s just common sense. They met with the most powerful person available, King Herod, ready to pay homage to an infant they probably assumed would be Herod’s son. Herod’s unnerved, to say the least, and turns to the religious establishment, the power elite, to help him figure out where the dangerous little baby might be. They do some Bible study and find the prophecy about Bethlehem, and Herod sends the Magi on their way, already hatching deadly plots in his terrified and threatened mind.
Notice, then, that the Magi didn’t have all the answers, and they most definitely took a wrong turn before they followed the star to the right place. It seems they were as apt to be distracted by power and wealth as we are. They were as apt to be taken in by common sense and convention as we are. They had to attune themselves to the strangeness of God appearing in an out-of-the-way place, in a nothing-and-nobody neighborhood before they could see the true destination.
In the story, God speaks to the Magi and to Joseph in dreams after the star fades from view. These are subtler, less cosmic signals. Both dream-recipients find a way to listen to these messages, take them seriously, and adjust their journeys accordingly. These dreams are beacons of another sort. Not every dream is divine, but the Scriptures recall holy dreams as guideposts over and over. God sometimes gets around our waking defenses with nighttime revelations. Intuitions about the journey to or with God are subtle twinklings or inklings more often than great unmistakable signs and visions. Seekers like the Magi respond to signals both large and small.
Perhaps the most impactful thing we should notice about the Magi is that they were indeed seekers. If the scholars speculating about their profession are right, the Magi were religious leaders who had spent years studying astronomy, astrology and theology. They prepared for a quest like the one remembered in Matthew’s gospel with fervor. When the signs were revealed, they were curious enough to set out on a journey to discover what the universe was trying to reveal. They were courageous enough to leave the comforts of home and explore an unknown place. They were humble enough to accept that they had made a wrong turn and try again. They were open enough to honor the infant at journey’s end even though he wasn’t of their tribe or religion. They were faithfully attentive enough to listen to a dream telling them to steer away from Herod and go home by another way. We can admire the Magi as exemplary seekers—prepared, curious, courageous, humble, open, faithfully attentive.
I believe God was playing the part of seeker as well—seeking folks with whom to share the good news about the birth of Christ. God is, I imagine, always seeking seekers, looking for ways to make contact with us through the veils. Theologian Thomas Long says that “the world is full of ‘stars in the East’—events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God…” His phrase about the world being full of stars in the East tickled a memory of Loren Eiseley’s beautiful essay “The Star Thrower.” You may have read it sometime in the past, or may be acquainted with the much simplified and moralizing tale of saving starfish that evolved from it which concludes with the adage “It makes a difference to this one.” I like the morality story, but the original essay is more thought-provoking.
In the essay, a description of an experience the naturalist Loren Eiseley had during a period of soul-searching, Eiseley speaks of being on a stormy beach where a great number of sea stars, shells, and other marine creatures had washed up. It’s a beach that was popular with people who collected shells and sea stars for their personal collections or for selling to tourists. Most people seen on the beach were picking up things greedily, stuffing them in bags and carrying them away. Eiseley looks into the distance. “Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand. He stooped and flung an object beyond the breaking surf. I labored another half a mile toward him and by the time I reached him, kneeling again, the rainbow had receded ahead of us. In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud. “It’s still alive,” I ventured. “Yes,” he said, and with a quick, yet gentle movement, he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. “It may live if the offshore pull is strong enough,” he said…He stooped again, and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.” As Eiseley leaves the beach he looks back and describes the scene: “I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the..[star thrower] appeared magnified, with the posture of a god.”
A good deal of Eiseley’s essay has to do with his grappling with the forces of death and destruction as he flirts with despair. He thinks about the futility of throwing a few stranded sea stars into the sea when they can’t all be saved. But he comes to admire the way the star thrower has sided with the forces of Life rather than being discouraged by ravenous death. Eventually Eiseley returns to the beach and joins the star thrower in his task, thinking hopeful thoughts about others who might also choose life.
The way Eiseley saw the star-thrower standing within the rainbow in the posture of a god set me to imagining God as a star-flinger. Indulge me while I recklessly mix star metaphors. Leaping from the deep blue-black sky of Matthew’s starry night, where God has flung a star for the seekers to follow, let’s imagine ourselves in the deep blue-black ocean of our existence. On the beach we cannot see, Creator God is busy flinging sea stars out over the sea. They are signs for us, signs of Life, signs of hope, signs of love and peace. “The stars,” we might imagine God saying, “throw well. My people can be helped.” The world is full of ‘stars of the East,’ full of signs of hope and health flung our way.
The worship team is joining the work of the star thrower after a fashion today, as we give you a star word for your contemplation. We have heard of other churches who have taken on this Epiphany tradition and thought it sounded intriguing. In a few moments we’ll invite you to take a word out of the offering plate, and take it home and ponder it. You might want to tape it to your mirror or your refrigerator where you can see it and let it nudge you. The idea is to be open to this word as a potential sign or guide for you. It may be a word that goes off after a while like a depth charge somewhere deep in your soul. It’s not any kind of magic, but a practice like this may refresh our vocations as seekers.
Fellow explorers, it’s true that our spiritual journeys can be quite the roller coaster. It’s true that God sometimes seems distant, veiled. It’s true that we are sometimes the ones who are veiled due to our inattention, apathy, fatigue, or inertia. Beloved, today might be a day we re-commit ourselves to the life of seekers, people eager to follow where God leads. We can, like the Magi, be prepared, curious, courageous, humble, open, faithfully attentive. Let’s re-open our hearts to a God who is continually flinging stars our way, encouraging us always to seek, find, and honor Christ.
 Levertov, Denise “Witness” A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry Czelsaw Milosz, ed. San Diego: Harvest Books, 1996, p. 72