Star of Wonder, Star of Night

Today is the Epiphany of our Lord.  In the Western Christianity we celebrate this event by hailing the arrival of eastern sages who followed the star till it led them to the Holy Family gathered around the manger.  That star sits atop many a Christmas tree.  It is celebrated in verse and hymn.

And sometimes it’s celebrated in church pageants this time of year.  Like the one many, many years ago in a little fishing village in Alaska.  The solemnity of the occasion might have been somewhat lacking when the three wisemen fell into a giggling heap upon arriving at the manger.

But the Epiphany of the Lord is far deeper than the hijinks of any bathrobe drama, no matter how cute the cast.  The celestial display is to make manifest the glory of God residing in a most ordinary event of a birth to a peasant woman in a nondescript, backwater place.  Another child born into poverty was nothing startling or auspicious in and of itself.  Yet this most ordinary of events has turned out to be the hinge of history.  If you doubt it, look at the effects.  In China, of all places!  Where are the results of this birth most widely felt?  The Protestant Church as represented by unregistered congregations is seeing spectacular growth.  Growth that has really rattled its Communist rulers.  Why this explosive growth?  Because the people who have walked in darkness have seen a true and wondrous Light.

But that Light comes to us in darkest night.  As it came to eastern sages in a world torn by imperial rivalries and the rule of the sword.  Likewise, it appears to us in our time of deep global darkness.

“A decade wasted,” is how one environmental writer assessed our response to global warming.  My friend’s wife, Christine, is presently in Australia.  She reports that the entire country seems aflame.  Over eight million animals are said to have perished.  Entire communities in eastern Australia are now cinders.  The loss of human life continues to mount.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Though the sky of Australia is ablaze, it is pitch dark for the planet.  And, their prime minister is a climate denier.  Just ignore that singed Koala. No need to tie me kangaroo down, Sport.  He’s ashes.   Nothing to see here, folks.   Move along.  Move along.  But, wait!  Now, this is rich — Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seeking to outlaw climate protests in order to protect mining interests.  Forget your flipping kangaroo.  It’s the economy, stupid.

Temperatures continue to soar elsewhere, 120 degrees Fahrenheit in New Delhi this week.  Almost nobody has air conditioning.  Wonder how they’re making out!?

O Star of deepest night, reveal some brief sign of hope, we pray.  That we may find our way back to our center.  Some sign back to sanity.

Chelsea Becker long awaited the birth of a son Zachariah.  She would whisper to her youngest, Silas. “Here’s your baby brother,” as Silas would hug her around her stomach.[1]  Alone at a friend’s house the twenty-five-year-old Chelsea began to bleed profusely.  When her mom arrived, she immediately called 911.  

About three hours after arriving at Adventist Hospital, Chelsea gave birth to a stillborn baby.  The nurse handed the mom the baby so she could say goodbye.  The hospital called the coroner’s office.  Two months later Chelsea was arrested for murdering her child.  The autopsy had shown toxic levels of methamphetamine in the baby’s blood.

O blindingly radiant Star, pray show forth a little hope, just a smidgen for those hooked on drugs and for their families.  Pierce the dreaded night of addiction for those who offer what little solace there is to be had.  Show a little love for those with hearts emptied out with grief.

The words of Isaiah seem too facile.  Too glib. 

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,

   And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”[2]

“Nations shall come to your light,

   And kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

I don’t think so.  Proclamations of Hope?   National exemplar of moral leadership?  The fact is, no nation is capable of such.  Israel failed time and again.  And when finally winning release from Greek hegemony, their leaders murdered one another in an orgy of mayhem over the following centuries until Rome moved in and conquered what was left.

And what modern nation has bragging rights?   Yet God sends the Star of Revelation.  Star of Second and Third Chances.  “Behold, I make all things new.”  Sweet land of liberty, would that it be so!

It always seems to be the little folks who rise to the occasion.  Those blessed “nothings” among us who radiate back divine glory and hope.

They are that unnamed nurse who, tears flooding her eyes, handed a dead baby back to its addicted mother for one last touch.  They are those neighbors in scorched Australia running before the flames from house to house waking any who might remain.  They are those Aussie shelter workers tending to the few rescued animals that made it to their care.

These are the magnificent slivers of light from the Star of Christ’s birth.  In and out of fitting season.

“Star of Wonder, Star of Night.  Westward leading, still proceeding.”[3]  Guide us, guide us we pray for the night is long, the darkness deep and the journey ahead most difficult.

Star of Wonder Star of Light, shine upon the peace makers in America and in Iran.  Shine O Star of Light, in skies perilous with drones and bombs — Shine while hearts now rage for revenge.  While folly rules by day and ignorance by night — All forethought having taken flight – Shine O Wondrous Star.  Shine!

Whisper a word or two of hope to pry open hearts both in America and in Iran.  Or shall thou, O Deathstar of Absolute Night, preside over yet more wanton bloodshed in a land already soaked in too much blood?  Where does it end?  What’s the plan here, O Geniuses of War?  Tell us — How does this end?

As always, it falls to the little people, the shepherds in the fields the young too burdened with student debt, to pick up the pieces and carry on with the daily stuff of life.  May their hearts be emboldened with a courage not seen from our leaders.  Give them arms strong to the task.  That’s always how it is, isn’t it?

This Epiphany, we ask for no miracles, no splendid pyrotechnics in the sky.  Only barely the light to find our way back home as did those three ancient travelers.  The promise, as always, remains — no matter how deep the night or absent familiar landmarks, the residual light from that long-ago Star shall be sufficient.  It’s fading glimmer, a true and trustworthy guide.

My wife and I spent part of our New Year’s Eve at All Saints, Pasadena.  It has been rumored that on that one night of all nights, when Jesus broke bread and shared the cup, it was bubbly.  And so, it is ever Champaign that’s been served at All Saints for Communion on New Year’s Eve in recent memory.

But better than that, however, a former priest on staff at All Saints, Wilma Jacobson, preached the sermon.  Wilma was a gift to All Saints by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who gave her his blessing to leave his staff in South Africa that she might come to America.  Of course, the madness in his method was that by sending Wilma Jacobson to the most prominent flagship Episcopal congregation on the West Coast, she would rally American support for the economic boycott against South Africa.  That boycott was in fact brought to a successful conclusion and Apartheid finally ended with the election of Nelson Mandela, its first black president.  All Saints, Pasadena, ever remains a strong supporter of the Desmond Tutu Foundation’s work.

As South Africa is presently racked by unemployment, crime, and corruption, Wilma heads back.  As a white South Afrikaner, she is aware she has little leverage to do much to be of help.  But what she can do, she will.  That’s the Wilma of generous heart that I have always known.  I will very much miss the lilt of her English accent when she leaves us.

In her sermon, Wilma mentioned a web site dedicated to those white South Afrikaners who have committed to remain and do whatever they can to heal the dysfunction of their great nation.  The site’s tag is called: #ImStaying  You can find it also on Facebook.

Here is the story of one of the faithful, generous souls who have screwed up their fortitude and have pledged their lot with their fellow countrymen and women.  It is the story of one white South Afrikaner who’s staying put.  These beautiful citizens of that fabled country brightly reflect glimmers of the Christ Star.  And what they reveal is hope for the planet – the hope of some simple, decent humanity.

The narrator says that on her drive home she saw a man lugging a suitcase on wheels with crutches.  Crossing a bridge, he was struggling mightily as he finally got to the other side.  He was tired and obviously ill.  She told her kids that she was going to stop and help him. 

She rolled down the window and asked the man if she could give him a lift somewhere.  His distorted face indicated to her that he was in some real difficulty.  He seemed somewhat confused.  He handed her a piece of paper saying he was deaf and dumb.  She began to speak very slowly and offered him a lift to where he needed to go.  He wrote on his paper on a board he pulled from his backpack his destination.  She had her son get out of the car and help with his bags.  Then she had the man sit next to her with his crutches.

As she drove along, the man kept writing messages to say thank you on his board, and she used the little sign language she knew to say that it was her pleasure.  She stopped along the way and got him something to drink and withdrew some money at her bank. 

When they got to the taxi station that was his destination, her son carried his suitcase to the cab.  As he left, she had tears streaming down her face.  She handed him a 400 Rand note in South African money and hoped he would make it home safely.

She later told her kids that there was no way that many people would help a man like this, walking with crutches, with a distorted grimace on his face.  Speaking to her children as much to us, she continues:

People need help!  We can only do what we can with what we’ve got.  I’m just happy that being kind costs nothing and we have the potential to do so much good. 

I know that [they] will remember that day in particular for the rest of their lives and I hope it will encourage them to be good to other people.  We need to role model this behavior for our kids.[4]

The woman concluded that she again had tears in her eyes as she typed up her story.  She thanked #ImStaying for all the positive posts on the site, concluding with the prayer, “May God bless Africa.”

As my friend Jim Strathdee has so marvelously turned a Howard Thurman poem to song!

When the song of the angels is stilled.
When the star in the sky is gone.
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home.
The work of Christmas is begun!

The work of Christmas has begun.  Our work.  The work of all the little people, the nobodies, the “least of these” – in whom Christ continues to daily preform the most astounding miracles.   Let it ever be so, even here at St. Francis.  Amen.

[1] Alex Wigglesworth, “Addicted Moms, Stillborn Babies,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2019.

[2] Isaiah 60:1 ff.

[3] John Henry Hopkins, Jr., “We Three Kings of Orient,” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1983) 128.

[4] Anonymous, #imstaying.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

January 5, 2020

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12;

Matthew 2:1-12

Celebration of the Epiphany

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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