“Daring to Believe”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
January 5, 2019
Second Sunday of Christmas, Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60; Matthew 2:1-12
This sermon portrays the Magi when they first see the star and have to decide how to respond. It a parable drawing heavily on the book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, particularly the chapter “Daring to Believe It Is Possible.”
Three Zoroastrian priests were standing on the temple observatory. Oasis trees obscured the horizon here and there, but a new observatory tower was rising and already blocked the sky to the west. Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar were looking toward a bright star in the east.
Caspar sighed and turned toward the unfinished tower. He had convinced his fellow Magi to undertake it, he had raised the money for it and he had overseen its construction.
He said, “I believe the star means that the Great Turning is about to begin, I believe its leader has just been born in Judea, but I don’t understand why we have to leave everything to go see this thing that has already come to pass. I’m not young like you two. I’ve been working on this tower since I was Balthazar’s age and I want to stand on it someday with you. I’m afraid if I make this journey that may never happen.”
Sadness shadowed Balthazar’s face. “Caspar, you’re sixty, you could live decades more. Don’t talk about dying. I would carry you if the camels gave out.
“But Melchior, I don’t see what good this trip is going to do, either. We have one hopeful star against whole constellations warning of a Great Unraveling. They press in on me so I can barely breathe. I can’t sleep, swinging between terror and despair. We might as well stay home and meet the end here in the comfort of our temple community, I say.”
Melchior looked at the star in silence for a few minutes. Then he turned to them. “Caspar, I hear your concern for your legacy. You are right, you may not see the tower finished if we go. This is important to consider. And Balthazar, no one who is paying attention to what is happening in the heavens and on earth could fault you for feeling terror and despair.
“Nor can anyone say with confidence that anything we do will make a difference—but my dreams and the voice speaking through the silence of my meditations tell me that we have a role to play, that there is something we can do that will matter.
“I may be wrong, but in some way we cannot imagine we may help the Great Turning by bringing our blessings and gifts to this child. To stay here doing Business As Usual would be the surer, more comfortable path. I’m only forty, yet I’d be happy never leaving these temple grounds again and spending whatever days remain in study and prayer. But I feel as if the Spirit that brought that star and child has also brought this urge in my heart to risk everything and act. We have a part to play. Don’t you feel it, too?”
Balthazar said, “I wish I could believe as you do, Melchior, but I’m twenty years behind you in spiritual practice, and my prayer right now consists of lying in bed screaming inside.”
Caspar looked with compassion at the young man. “You know, Balthazar, Zarathustra, the founder of our order, lived in a time that had strayed from the Golden Rule and ethics of lovingkindness, when people thought that the goal of life was to grab money and power to lord it over others. A time like now.
“The chances of his success at changing that culture seemed impossible. He had his first visions when he was your age and he did not see any hope that his philosophy would be accepted by even a small community until he was my age. It took him forty years, yet here we are, two thousand years later.
“Many times heroes have struggled against evil. We have the rights and freedoms and order of society we do today because they dared to believe change was possible when others ridiculed or persecuted them for speaking out.
“I don’t like what Melchior is suggesting, and neither does he, but we do have reason to hope. People have persisted before and made a difference. Look at that tower. It’s not done, but someday it will allow Magi a clearer view of the truths the universe is trying to tell us. If I had given up at your age, we would not be closer to that wisdom today.”
“Not to team up on you, young friend, but I will add to what Caspar says. Have you ever watched the stone cutters working on the tower? They tap tap tap a hundred times and you don’t see even a crack. Then all of a sudden with one more tap a hairline appears, and at the next tap the cut is done. Following this star may be the first tap or it may be the hundredth—it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to see results. We know we need all our taps together to reshape this world.
“Your fear and despair? They are only trying to protect you. They are like attack dogs that lie on the threshold and growl and bare their teeth to keep danger from entering the house. The problem is that they are keeping you trapped inside as well as protecting you from what is outside. You have the chance now to free yourself from them so you can use your gifts, so you can make the tap-tap-taps the world needs from you.
“It takes prayer and guidance to gain freedom, but also courageous action. Every step on this journey will strengthen your command of those threshold guardians so for the rest of your life you will be able to overcome fear and despair whenever the Spirit calls you to act. And you will always find help along the way, friends like us.”
The star sparkled in the tears in Balthazar’s eyes. “Thank you, Melchior. I know the truth in what you say. I have seen it myself.
“After my mother died my father got drunk every night and beat us. I tried to protect my little brothers and sisters, but I was only twelve. Remember, Caspar? That is when I came here seeking refuge. I was terrified he would kill me. You were the priest tending the temple that night. You listened to me for hours, and then you encouraged me to do what I knew was right, to go back to protect the others.
“You told me to keep loving my father, to have compassion for him, and at the same time to make sure I was safe and to call on the other adults in the family and neighborhood to protect us.
“I was still scared, but I went back, and a miracle happened. Maybe my father felt the difference in me, I don’t know, but he softened. He was able to break through his own pain and despair and see his children with compassion. He saw we needed him. He underwent his own Great Turning, a change in consciousness, and he not only became a good father but a better, wiser man and a leader in the community.
“So yes, I hear what you are saying. I know we could make a difference. I know we could play a role in a miracle. Yes, I am willing to go. And my offer stands, Caspar. I’ll carry you if the camels won’t!”
Caspar said, “Good. We will do it.
“And now for gifts for the child. I will sacrifice some of the gold I raised for the tower and pray that this child will teach detachment from material things, and free the world from greed and oppressive power. What about you, Melchior?”
“I will bring frankincense, that he may breathe in the Holy Spirit and be full of its guidance and strength, and breathe it back out to others through every word and action all his days.”
Balthazar said, “And I will bring myrrh, that he may overcome the powers of death and free us from terror and despair and all that holds us back from the Great Turning toward a world built on eternal love.”
They took one last look at the star, then turned to their dangerous journey.
And now, two thousand years later, they turn to us.
Let us pray in silence, looking at whatever star of hope that we can see, asking what journey, local or global, the Spirit would have us undertake, and what sacrifices and gifts, little or large, it would have us make to help bring about the Great Turning that the child came to help us accomplish…
Amen. And here is another vision of the Magi, a brilliant poem by T. S. Eliot read beautifully by Sir Alec Guinness: