Preached January 4, 2015
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60
The North Star, called “Polaris” by astronomers is our most literal guiding star, and it is special because it is the only star in the night sky that hardly appears to move. It appears fixed because it is located directly above the rotation axis of the Earth – Wesleyan Astronomy Professor Meredith Hugh’s says, if we were relaxing with Santa Claus after Christmas at the North Pole, it would be directly overhead. Anywhere in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, if you can find the North Star, it points you in the direction of north.
But Polaris, Professor Hugh’s tells me, — the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper — won’t always be the North Star, and hasn’t always been the North Star. The rotation axis of the earth wobbles due to a phenomenon called “precession,” and it moves in a predictable circle in the sky over the course of about 26,000 years. We’re just lucky to have a bright star over the North Pole right now (the southern hemisphere is not as lucky!).
Back when Jesus was born, there was no bright star near the North Pole, so people then would have had to use different stars to guide them.
Medieval writers thought it must have been an angel that the three wise men saw, perhaps the angel that appeared to the shepherds, and that is what led them to Jesus.
Stars appear brightest when it is dark out, that is to say metaphorically, when we can’t see where we are going, we pay closest attention to things that might point us in the right direction.
Mary Lou Brady commented that when she was in the darkest valley of her life, when her child had tremendous health complications, and that her prayer life changed. Instead of asking God to manipulate their surroundings and change outcomes, she prayed for her own strength, to put one foot in front of the other, for courage.
Mary Lou and the deacons decided to ask these central question during the time leading up to Christmas: What is your light in the dark, your guiding star, how do you get to the nativity scene through the dark, which character do you relate to the most in the nativity scene.
We had four different families give really wise, funny, powerful, beautiful testimonies. We learned about walrus and rhinos and astronauts and army characters in the crèche. We invited the rest of the congregation to write on these stars, the answer to one of these questions. What is your light in the dark, your guiding star, how do you get to the nativity scene through the dark, which character do you relate to the most in the nativity scene. We weren’t sure what we would get. We wanted a way to connect our own stories to the Christmas story. Here are some responses:
Five of us related to Mary, as someone who cared deeply for other people, as a motherly figure, having never ending love for her first born. One related to the women who helped Mary give birth. Two of us related to Mary and Joseph, the family unit, and four of us related to Joseph, as a quiet caregiver, the outsider, the bystander, as someone to be asked to have faith beyond reason. Three of us related to baby Jesus, some reasons being because babies bring new life to families, and feeling grateful to have God come in the form of a baby, so that we can want to love and care for God unconditionally.
Nine of us related to the shepherds, because they were among the animals under the stars, close to the earth, always working, they showed joy and excitement over the birth of Jesus, and because they followed the star in awe of the birth of Jesus, who witnessed a vision and deliver the message.
Ten of us related to animals! If you want to hear more about this, this is a plug for Second Hour.
Other answers fell more under the category of, “what is your light in the dark,” among them; the celebration of the cycles of life and seasons, humble beginnings, peace, caring and worth in cold and dark, family, love, community, seeing happy proud faces of the children carrying the figures to the crèche, and that witnessing the birth of Christ each year reminds us that we ourselves can be renewed.
We loved these answers. We realized this sort of task had the potential to come off as hokey and childish- but sometimes it is good to activate that part of ourselves. We really wanted to get at the heart of relating our own stories with the Christmas story, and to be honest with ourselves when we couldn’t relate.
And now we ask the question: where do we go from here? We have just entered the new year- a very sacred time of the year, where we after Christmas and New Year, naturally have new intention, if we follow the Christ narrative, because we have just witnessed hope and light born into the world anew, and finally the days a gradually growing longer!
The question then becomes, how do we carry the light of Christ with us into the new year? I want to propose a technique, not necessarily for planning and plotting the future, for often we “make plans and God laughs.” But rather, a technique for approaching the future, for getting beyond our own gridlocks and for truly evolving as human beings and as a community. Diane Butler Bass claims that every 500 years or so, historically there is great religious shift or reformation, and we, friends, are in that time now. The path isn’t mapped for us, the charts aren’t there predicting exactly how it will look.
The technique is called dead reckoning, and I borrow it from Edwin Friedman, who says this technique is essentially how Europe got out of the dark ages, and how Columbus charted a path to America. Now every one of us knows how problematic it is to lift up Christopher Columbus, because of the atrocities against the indigenous communities, but Columbus was able to in a sense, discover the New World where all the other explorers of the era had necessarily failed to do so. He was a terrible map reader.
“’Dead Reckoning,” [is] the capacity to chart a course through one’s own constant micro-measurements rather than relying on the use of someone else’s map – [in essence, it’s] a kind of biofeedback with one’s [own] environment.”1
Rev. Michael Ellick writes, “Edwin Friedman defined his skill of ‘dead reckoning’ in emotional terms: as a strange mix of dreaming and determination, and a bold new relationship between risk and reality. But more importantly, he uses this to illustrate the kind of faith and daring that is always required by any of us if we are to ever break free from our own emotional ruts in order to discover new territory.”
Celestial Navigation, similarly, is the art and science of finding one’s geographic position by astronomical observations, particularly by measuring altitudes of celestial objects: sun, moon, planets, or stars.
So where do we go from here? I think this church is great at taking risks, and not being attached to successful outcomes, and this will be key for our not just survival, but thriving, and being real and authentic with ourselves and one another as we seek to evolve into this next era of our collective lives.
This is not map making. It is cultivating an attitude toward the future, one that I think we have already, and that I will encourage us to grow into. An attitude of curiosity and risk, of not worrying about surviving, because that will fling us into the safety of continuity, rather than evolution.
Yesterday, someone who is self proclaimed anti-religious person asked me, thinking this would be a trump, “well how do you feel about the decline of protestant traditions?” And I said, probably trying to shock her, but also honest. “I think it is great. We are supposed to evolve, and what is meant to die, will die, and what is actually bringing healing and love into a world of oppression and pain, will continue. We can reach deep back into our past, and chart new paths into our future.” She was actually satisfied with that answer. People who are anti-religion don’t scare me, even though my livelihood depends on it.
With the birth of Christ, we enter into a new cycle. Stars have life cycles, just like people, although stellar life cycles are much longer than human lifespans. We see stars being born out of cocoons of gas and dust, living out their adult lives like the Sun, and dying in varied ways — violently, beautifully, or quietly — just like humans. Even things that appear to be fixed points are impermanent. So what will be our guiding star? Or rather, how will we follow it? Let us chart new paths together. Amen.