Scripture Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: Looking to the Stars
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
It was the last Christmas of the 20th century and the space shuttle was in orbit. At the transition to a new century, Commander Curt Brown delivered this message from the shuttle to Earth:
“The familiar Christmas story reminds us that for millennia people of many faiths and cultures have looked to the skies and studied the stars and planets in their search for a deeper understanding of life and for greater wisdom. We hope and trust that the lessons the universe has to teach us will speak to the yearning that we know is in human hearts everywhere. The yearning for peace on Earth good will among all the human family. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium we send you all our greetings.” [Quoted in Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly, chapter 12]
From the stars, from the heavens, from space, come messages of peace. It is a universal human longing. We see this in our beloved stories of Christmas. We celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. We revere the story of Jesus as one who is coming to Earth from heaven to bring peace. We have the beautiful story of the magi that was read this morning; these astrologers, philosophers, astronomers, from a distant land, a foreign culture, following a star, in a search for wisdom and understanding, in a quest for peace. These wise ones are led by the heavens in their search. The trek is well worth the cost, the inconvenience, the financial burden, the hardship, because it is in the interests of peace. Peace is worth the price as we will later learn from Jesus as he makes his sacrifice.
But the dearly beloved story of the magi and their journey following the star is not just a romanticized fantasy. In their search for the Prince of Peace, these wise ones encounter Herod. They come face to face with a leader who is filled with “warring madness.” Herod is a violent, tyrannical despot. He has killed his own family members to protect his power and position. Herod will not tolerate any threat and will stop at nothing to maintain his control and authority. Intimidation, fear, violence, and death, these are the tools he uses to reign. We are told that he orders the killing of all young boys in an effort to eradicate this new baby king who is a potential future rival. So the magi are faced with conflict and violence as they make their way to peace.
The magi follow the star, the leading of the heavens, their dreams, and steer their way between love and fear, war and peace, as they navigate past Herod to the Divine peace symbolized in the birth of Jesus. Then they go home another way. They avoid Herod; they steer clear of confrontation and violence. They choose another way; a way of peace.
Memorial Day, as we remember those who have served our country, is a time to think about how we are navigating our way to peace in our time. Those who have served in the military and who have been killed in armed conflict have given their lives in the pursuit of peace – for their families, their communities, our country, and the world. This is the honorable basis for military service.
So the most reverential way we can honor those who have served is by working for the peace. Memorial Day is a time to think about how we navigate to the destination of peace on Earth in a culture that is wracked with violence and pursuing endless wars. It is a time to think about what stars are guiding us, what stars we are following, and where they are leading us.
In today’s world, so many lives and resources are devoted to war and to violent resolution of differences. What other species devotes such resources to destruction, to death? What other species diverts so much energy away from what fosters life to what destroys life?
We mere mortals here on Earth seem so bent on pursuing war. The US is involved in armed conflict in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Pursuing these wars is costing lives and resources; resources that could be used to building up this country and the quality of life for all of its citizens. We are all suffering the effects of these endless wars in many ways though we may not feel directly involved with, say, a loved one serving abroad in the armed services. Still we are involved. And we are being affected by the government’s pursuit of war. This contributes to reduced funding for education, healthcare, sustainable energy, the arts, infrastructure, and so much more. Our society as a whole is suffering the effects of prolonged armed conflict.
In addition, we project destruction, violence and war into space through our entertainment. The Star Wars, get that Star Wars, franchise is one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence. There are many instances in which we have projected the concept of war into space in our entertainment. This is a symptom of our captivation and some say addiction to war.
And we project our very real, earthly conflicts onto space. US astronaut Scott Kelly recently spent a year in space on the International Space Station. He recounts his experiences in the book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery. While on the International Space Station, the US astronauts were asked to participate in a hearing with a congressional committee about the funding of the space program. The crew told of bio medical experiments and growing lettuce. Then they were asked about Russia. The US and Russia were in a difficult geo-political situation. Were the American astronauts sharing data with the Russians on the space station? Kelly told the committee that international cooperation was one of the strengths of the space station. He mentioned that when he was the only American on the space station, the counted on the two Russians. “We have a great relationship and I think the international aspect of this program has been one of its highlights.” [Endurance, chapter 17]
While conflicts brew and boil on Earth, astronauts tell us that space is very peaceful. The view of the Bahamas is gorgeous. From space, Earth looks beautiful and peaceful. In addition, the International Space Station involves many people from many countries working together. The countries may not be getting along on Earth but they work together in space. The astronauts all cooperate beautifully in space. They must. They know that their survival depends on their cooperation. I’m wondering when we will learn that lesson on Earth. On the space station, there is commitment to a higher goal, a nobler aim. With the space station there is no room, no literally or figuratively, for disagreement, competition, domination, or hostility. The enterprise can only succeed if the astronauts as well as all of those involved on the ground fully cooperate with each other. And everyone involved knows this.
Though I do not have much interest in space exploration, unlike like my husband who minored in astronomy and teaches physics, I do love the international cooperation that happens on the space station and in conjunction with the space program. It is an encouraging model for what can happen on Earth.
In the story of the magi, they find the baby Jesus, bring him gifts, worship him, and head home. They must decide how they will proceed. Are they going to go back to Herod and risk possible involvement in conflict and violence or will they go home another way, a peaceful way? Will they risk taking a new route, through unfamiliar territory, in pursuit of peace? Yes. That is what they choose.
We, too, have encountered Jesus. We know him through his teachings and the stories of his followers. We know him through our experience and through the church. In Jesus, we see the way of peace. It is a lifestyle of generosity and self giving. It is an orientation of humility and meekness. It is a way of strength through gentleness. It is a way of peace that steers us away from competition, from greed, from conflict, from violence, from domination, and away from the intimidation and fear that lead to armed conflict and war and death. Not peace. Having encountered Jesus, like the star that leads the magi, we are being led to proceed on the path to peace. And, yes, it can be very difficult. And it can require sacrifice.
After spending a full year on the International Space Station, US Astronaut Scott Kelly boarded the Russian Soyuz to return to Earth. His last view of the space station as he departed prompted these reflections:
The International Space Station is “the work of 15 different nations over 18 years. Thousands of people speaking differing languages and using different engineering methods and standards. . . In a world of compromise and uncertainty this space station is a triumph of engineering and cooperation. Putting it into orbit, making it work, and keeping it working is the hardest thing that human beings have ever done. And it stands as proof that when we set our minds to something hard, when we work together, we can do anything including solving our problems here on Earth. I also know that if we want to go to Mars it will be very, very difficult. It will cost a great deal of money. And it may cost human lives. But I know now that if we decide to do it, we can.” This is how Kelly ends his book, Endurance, about his year in space.
May we look to the stars, the stars in space, the stars on our US flag, the stars of our faith tradition, and decide to create peace on Earth. Yes, it will be very, very difficult. It may cost a great deal of money. And it may cost human lives. But if we decide to do it, we can. Amen.
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