“Star Power for Those Who Dream”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
3 January, 2021
Epiphany Sunday –
Final Sermon in the “Those Who Dream” Series
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

I’ve been reflecting on Matthew’s story about the magi, and certain features of it that really stood out to me this year.  We hear the story every year around this time, and if we’re listening carefully, we’ll hear or notice different words or aspects of the story that illuminate our understanding in new ways.

Some say the magi were Zoroastrian priests who regularly consulted the night skies because astrology was part of their religion.  Others contend that they were learned men who paid attention to all sorts of unusual occurrences.  Still others just call them “wise men.”  Whoever or whatever they were, Matthew tells us they journeyed to Bethlehem from a faraway eastern land, allowing a star to guide them—and for no other reason than to discover the truth of the mystery that lay beneath it.  There was nothing for them to gain in terms of prestige or power or material wealth.  In fact, the entire journey they made would likely have required a sacrifice of these things for them.  And yet, Matthew tells us “they observed the star at its rising.”  And, having been curious enough about what was going on, they pursued understanding even across cultural and religious borders.

They went in search of the king of the Jews – not because he was their king, but because in their research they had learned that a holy one, a Messiah, had been foretold by prophets of Israel.  And they felt drawn to find and honor him.  Clearly, they were compelled by a Spirit and a thirst for truth that drew them out of comfortable places and into potential danger – but not in order to eliminate a threat.  (That was Herod’s response; as the current king of the Jewish people, he responded with more fear over losing control than curiosity about the possibility that the Messiah his people had long prayed for might have been born in his own time.)  The Wise Men made a journey requiring personal sacrifice not to destroy or dominate, but rather, to honor the truth they discovered.  To offer gifts.

Although there’s a sweetness about it, it’s a powerful and mysterious truth-filled Biblical story.  One that teaches us yet again that, although the typical human response is to fear, resist, and reject “foreigners” whose intentions we worry are not beneficial to us, chances are strong that God has a purpose for the stranger that cannot be revealed if they are not welcomed.  Though others may have feared the foreign magi and their intentions, God illuminated their journey – both before they departed and all along the way.  All so that they might bear witness to the divine.  That’s one of the aspects of the story that struck me quite powerfully this year, with all the instances of xenophobia I see plaguing our world, including our own country.

But the verse I kept coming back to as I was reflecting on Matthew’s story this year, was the final verse of our gospel reading: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”[1]  Our theme throughout Advent was “Those Who Dream”, encouraging us to pay attention to our own dreams: our visions for our lives, for this world, for the future – especially as they compare with God’s dreams.

The wise men, we’re told, were from another country: the land they traveled to in order to discover and honor the truth was not their own.  In John’s gospel, there’s a scene where Jesus is being interrogated by Pilate, who asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  And Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world,” and he continues on to say, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”[2]

As disciples of Jesus’ Way, it’s worth asking ourselves, What and where is home for us?  Which kingdom do we call home?  Because our answer to that question will probably impact the scope and shape of our dreams and visions.

The wise men knew where home was for them – and they trusted their dreams, returning to their home by another way.  They allowed for things beyond their control to inform the path they took.  First it was a star to guide them, and then their dreams.

Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and highly sought-after spiritual guide, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, says: “An epiphany is not an experience that we can create from within, but one that we can only be open to and receive from another.  Epiphanies leave us totally out of control, and they always demand that we change.”[3]

It’s appropriate that we have an entire service and season devoted to Epiphany, because people of faith have always needed divine epiphanies to aid us on our sojourn through this world.  For the Israelites who spent four decadesjourneying through the wilderness (I think of that sometimes when I wonder how much longer we can withstand the wilderness of this pandemic year that has been plagued by so much more than a coronavirus), God guided the people from the place of their enslavement to the place of blessing they had been promised.  But it took forty years.  I imagine those folks needed some hope-filled encouragement that they were not alone, and life would not always be so grim!

We read in Exodus 13:21 that “By day the LORD went ahead of [the Israelites] in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night” as they journeyed toward the Promised Land.  The pillar of cloud and pillar of fire served not only as directional guides, but also as reassuring, visible reminders of God’s presence with the people.

And that’s why Isaiah’s words, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you”[4] would have been so profoundly heartening and healing for the nation of Israel to whom the prophet originally proclaimed that good news.  He was preaching to a people who had experienced their homeland as having been plundered; they were a nation whose reality felt consumed by the darkness of humiliation and defeat.  By the time Isaiah brought this message to them, they had spent a significant amount of time in a spiritual wilderness, having to re-define who they were and whether the “home” and the dreams they’d previously claimed were in line with God’s own dreams and understandings.

Isaiah’s words to the people of Israel would have presented a fresh blaze, an epiphany – a new vision to guide them as they continued their onward trek.  Not a topographical journey this time, so much as one that took them deeper into the geography of the soul and the world of the spirit.  And in that world, one must learn to trust visions, dreams, and epiphanies.  One must learn to identify and trust certain lodestars, as the Wise Men did.

What, and whom, do you choose to trust, to guide the path of your life?  What are you willing to take a chance on in order to discover deeper truth, in order to honor God’s presence and power in this world?  Are you open to the possibility of taking another way, of doing life differently in some ways, in order to arrive at the home your heart is truly seeking?  If so, what are you willing to do?  And, how much are you willing to sacrifice, or change?

There’s a growing prayer practice in churches around the world on or around Epiphany Sunday to give people a Star Word.  I’ve also heard them called intention words, or guide words.  We call them star words because the Magi followed a star, which ultimately led them to Jesus. And the idea is that, like the Wise Men, we must open ourselves to every resource available to us in order to be guided to the deeper truth our souls are seeking.  The Wise Men paid attention first to a newly-emergent star in the night sky as the divine light they allowed to guide them.  And then they paid attention to their dreams as they journeyed home with new truth and a greater faith in the Almighty.

When we intentionally open ourselves to the possibility that a single word might somehow be used to guide us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and of God’s activity in our life and world, we’re demonstrating a trust that God uses many different ways to guide us and speak to us.  Star Words can be lenses through which we look for God in our midst, both actively and in hindsight.  And as we develop that spiritual practice, our confidence grows in the trust-worthiness that God does, indeed, guide and speak to us in these ways when we pay attention.

We’ve shared Star Words in the previous two years, and I know many of you have appreciated it.  This year, we obviously can’t pass a basket filled with words for you to draw one out at random.  But we’ve got a couple different options for how you can get a Star Word this year.

Your first option, is to choose a number between 1 and 130.  Take a moment now and write down your number.  In a moment, I’m going to share my screen which has 130 Star Words written on it, and you just need to find your number and the word next to it.  I’ll leave the page posted as we sing our next hymn.

Or, if you prefer, you can email me (pastor@hollischurch.org) or get in touch with the church office and I’ll randomly choose a word for you and send it to you.

Either way, I hope you’ll try this spiritual practice.  And, if you’ve done it in the past, I hope you’ll stick around after the service and share during fellowship time about your experience!

And now, I invite you to pray with me to bless the prayer practice of using these Star Words in the unfolding year.  Let us pray:

God of ink black skies and starry nights, like the Magi so many years ago, we are here, seeking you.  Step by step, we have wandered into this space, connected with these people, with the hope of feeling you in our midst.  And step by step, you have claimed us, loved us, and fed us.
Today we are receiving star words.  For some of us, these words are full of meaning, challenge, and invitation already.  For others, these words will be a blank canvas, inviting you into our lives.  As a new year dawns, we pray that you would be in our dreams and in our waking.  Allow us to use these Star Words as a tool to see you in our everyday life.  May they guide us, as the star guided the Magi.
May they illuminate your path, and may yours be our chosen path.
Help us to be open to the change, and even sacrifice, that epiphanies can require from us.  Grant us hope, courage, and confidence that by this small act of becoming more attentive and intentional, our journey toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life we long for will be rewarded, and we will find ourselves adoring – and resembling – Christ Jesus all the more.
And in a year, may we find ourselves together again (we hope and pray all in one place), with mouths full of praise for the ways in which you have been present to us.  With grateful and hopeful hearts tuned to your Spirit, we pray.  Amen.[5]

 

[1] Matthew 2:12.

[2] John 18:36-37

[3] Fr. Richard Rohr, ‘Epiphany: You Can’t Go Home Again’ Published on ISSUU. October 6, 2016.

[4] Isaiah 60:1

[5] Prayer by Sarah Are, adapted by tnsr.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC