Following a Star

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; Matthew 2:1-12

Y’all may or may not be aware that I spent much of the last two weeks in Houston Texas, and Miami Florida.

Yes, it was warm, and yes, I did spend most of my time in shorts, with a drink in hand, reading a book and watching the water go by, under the thatched roof of the Tiki hut at my sister’s house, on occasion playing Frisbee with her wonderful poodle Gracie. It was as good as you might suspect.

But relaxing wasn’t the only thing that I did, although it was most of it. My oldest brother invited me to go to his church last weekend.

Although my brother in his teenage years went to a UCC church down in Miami, for about the past 15 years, he’s been Greek Orthodox. This is mostly because he married a second generation Greek immigrant, and thus, into her big Greek Family and into the religion.

You remember My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  That was his life, basically.

Has anyone here been to a Greek Orthodox or other Eastern Orthodox service? It’s very, very different from how we worship. I would say that our ways of worshiping are about as far apart as can possibly be while both still being recognizably Christian. At least in form.

In function, we still do many of the same things- prayers for the people, bible readings, sermons, communion, but they look and sound so vastly different that its easy be overwhelmed by the differences. It’s easy to consider them so foreign that there’s nothing to learn from them.

But that’s the wonderful thing about the different gifts we bring that there’s always something to learn. Especially when we give those gifts and realize that we’re actually following the same star.

We see this pretty clearly in our two Bible readings today. It’s very obvious in our first reading, from the book of Corinthians, describing the diversity of gifts that we bring to the body of Christ. 

Because we are one in Spirit- that is, the Holy Spirit, our advocate who binds us together, variety of gifts we manifest; wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, auto repair

Don’t laugh, to someone whose car is broke and they don’t have enough money to fix it, auto repair is a spiritual gift.

This is part of why a church like this takes all types.  It takes people old and young, rich and poor, white collar and blue collar, liberal and conservative, people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds and, as this church has sometimes struggled with, people of different genders and sexual orientations.

We all have something to give as a gift to the church, to the community, to God. This sometimes includes people who are very very different from us. The Magi that come to visit Jesus were probably, according to both the tradition of the church and best research by scholars, Persians, from modern day Iran, who had trained and learned in Babylon, in modern day Iraq.

They were astrologers, the scientists and economists of their day who also functioned as court advisors.  They were probably followers of the Zoroastrian religion, a religion of the ancient world that is barely hanging on today.

The most famous Zorastrian, by the way, was a musician named Farrokh Bulsara, who moved from India to England, changed his name, and became the lead singer for a then obscure rock band named Queen.  You might know him better as Freddie Mercury.

But anyways, these Zoroastrian Magi were most certainly not Jewish.  Although the Israelites probably had better relations with them than the Romans and Greeks, because the Persian King Cyrus allowed the Israelites back into Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile, they were still very much not Jewish.

So when these three scholars, wealthy men who probably traveled with caravans of servants and scribes, show up to a humble town about 5 miles past the middle of nowhere, it’s a bit odd.

It’s a bit odd of God. For the traditions around these gifts throughout the history of the church are that they foretell the life of Christ. 

It’s those middle three verses in We Three Kings. Gold, tells us about Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace.

Frankincense a type of, you guessed it, incense, tells us about Christ’s role as the new symbolic High Priest of the Temple, the new mediator between humanity and divinity, the bridge between Heaven and Earth.

We should also note that in other Christian Churches, incense, especially Frankincense is used to make a place holy.  In our tradition, we believe that Christ’s presence on earth made the entire earth holy, and thus there’s no need for us to do so now. 

Myrrh was the bitter perfume, used in burial rites.  This recalls Christ’s death of the cross, and his resurrection.

So once again, how odd of God to have these non-Jewish sages come to pay homage to Christ’s birth with gifts that would foretell his life. How odd of God that even though there was a star that everyone could see, only a few were able to follow it.

How odd of God when that happens not only in the Bible Stories, but in our own lives. When there’s something that seems to be hiding in plain sight, but we’re the only ones who see what it really means.

When we follow on a path toward what we know to be holy and we think it will be straightforward, but it ends up being really really weird. And then when we get there, we realize that not only is our presence expected, but so is a unique gift, the gift of our whole selves.

When we take stock of the gifts we have to bring, they seem really weird, like accounting or auto repair, the ability to make people laugh, or to make really tasty cookies.

Like gold, frankincense, and myrrh for a baby. Yet if that star is truly a sign that God’s love and community are present in a place, those gifts, as weird as they might seem at first, are accepted wholeheartedly.

Because God loves all the gifts we bring, no matter how weird they might seem to us. Like the weird gift of experiencing God in a new way while on vacation in Miami at a Greek Orthodox Worship service, which they call the Divine Liturgy.

A worship service where, we get the sense that worship would happen no matter how many or how few people showed up. Part of that is caused by the way they do communion there.

To start with, the layout of an Orthodox Church is a little different. The Chancel area, which in our church is this area up here where the lay reader and I sit, is a bit bigger, and is mostly hidden behind screens with pictures of saints on them except for the center aisle of the church. The communion altar- they have altars, not communion tables like us, is up on the chancel, peeking out from in between those screens down through the center aisle. And toward the back wall of the church there’s a cross, a crucifix really for it contains an image of Jesus in body painted on it, probably about 4ish feet tall.

And when the priest presides over communion, he doesn’t do it like we do, where I face the congregation, in what is called Ad Populum- toward the people.

But rather, toward the cross, which is on the east wall of the church, for Orthodox Churches are always built on an East-west line, unlike ours which is built north-south. It’s not something that I would ever do, celebrating communion with my back to the people of the church, facing the east, ad orientem as they call it.

It’s not in our traditions, and in such closed quarters, it feels a little weird, cutting off the clergy from the congregation. But there is something really special in acknowledging that all of us are pointed toward Christ.

That we are all following that same star that tells us where the Christ Child lays in a manger. That although my spiritual gifts have set me aside as your pastor,  we’re still on the same journey.

Trying to figure out what gifts that we can bring to the living God, Jesus Christ, alive in the manger, who died on the cross, who rose from the dead, and who lives in each and every one of our human hearts.