In one of his poems Robert Frost offered this counsel: “When at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be stayed.” What is the star that “stays our minds” during these uncertain times? What does it ask of us by way of commitment?
The Bible is a book about great leaders but equally a book about great followers: their failures and foibles and faith. From Moses to Mary to the Magi and more . . . all of them, in their own way, followed a star. These people were not great because they organized massive projects or had brilliant educations or achieved major awards, but because they oriented themselves to the star of God’s dream for the world and followed it.
I do not consider myself a poet, but I offer this short reflection by way of thinking of those wise visitors who played such an important role in the life of the infant Jesus. And I hope these words may invite you to think about them as well, so that we, too, will follow only the stars that are truly worth following:
These Three Kings
They did not know one another
any better than they knew the road that
stretched before them.
These three kings were unrehearsed
in the rigors of long journeys,
unaccustomed to travel over great distances,
Yet the star would not take no for an answer.
The inevitable had become unavoidable;
they turned their camels toward the light.
At night they warmed themselves by the fire,
stepped out of its illumination
to confirm the star’s onward leading.
Their gifts rattled in the rough packs,
their teeth rattled from the plodding beasts.
They hid their shaking hands
from the king who demanded obedience —
opened their hearts to the infant king
who welcomed their love.
They went home by another way,
warned in a dream that saved their skins
and kept the child a holy secret:
The child whose light is now the star
that calls us from our homelands
to the horizon of all that love makes possible.
These are the opening words to the Twenty-third Psalm. It could be described as the heart of the Book of Psalms: a collection of 150 songs and poems that lies roughly at the geographical heart of the Bible. Though many of those psalms are no longer widely known, the Twenty-third Psalm continues to exert a quiet influence. When I preside at memorial services and graveside burials, it is almost always included as one the readings that people choose for comfort and consolation. It is sometimes a source of inspiration for popular songs, and if children are invited to memorize a few Biblical passages as part of their church school curriculum, the Twenty-third Psalm is certain to be included among them.
I suspect the enduring popularity of this one psalm has to do with its remarkable affirmation of life, condensed into a handful of memorable phrases. God is portrayed as giver of peace, companion through struggle, and provider of goodness through all the seasons of life. Through references to death and enemies there is an admission in these ancient words that life comes with challenges, and ultimately comes to an end. Yet “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
So I give you the Twenty-third psalm: words of encouragement for people of faith who are also prisoners of hope. An ancient poem that opens a clear channel between us and God, whose power can soothe our jittery nerves and prepare us to face the future with humility and defiance.
“Psalm 23 is . . . the most familiar and most loved of all the Psalms. It is a psalm of trust that voices full confidence in the steadfast presence of God as the defining reality of life.”
– Walter Brueggemann From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms
“If any psalm provides a little tabernacle of grace, this is it. Its pastoral images put you in a cool, lush, quiet, meadow spot, some echo of an original Garden, a reminder that God’s first encounters with the creatures of the earth were in the great outdoors, in the cool of the evening.”
– Ray Waddle A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time
“Prayer is an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
In recent years there have been so many references in the media to the decline of the church, we may be in danger of forgetting that the vitality of the church cannot always be measured in numbers. Small groups of faithful people, with or without church buildings, find ways in changing times to practice the strengths that define us: compassion, spiritual curiosity, and openness to the Spirit. After all, faith is a way of life, and can be cultivated wherever we live and move and have our being. As Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.”
One of the strengths of the church is the capacity to pray. “Congregations pray,” writes Gary Gunderson in his book, Deeply Woven Roots. “And the prayer makes and marks the difference between them and other voluntary forms of association…Prayer is not just a service provided to the community. It is the experienced intersection of the holy and human…As we grow through life, we must constantly learn to pray in new ways, seeking depth to match the complexity of our experience. The passage and reversals of life literally force us to our knees and into silence.”
We pray to care for others, to deepen our friendship with God, and to galvanize our communities of faith in response to opportunities and threats. On the morning of October 28 we prayed as a congregation for the friends, families and communities associated with Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the shootings there that claimed the lives of eleven people and left six others wounded. Who could begin to count the number of people whose lives have been so radically disrupted by these acts of violence?
May all our prayers center us in the Spirit, so that we may be ambassadors of God’s ongoing movement of peace, faith, hope and love.
O God of peace, O God of compassion:
We gather in your presence this morning, in the warm embrace of your love.
We give thanks for the many ways that you care for us, encourage us, and are an experience of sanctuary for us.
We gather also in the awareness that your love strengthens us to reach out to the world around us with faith, hope and love: that as we cared for, so also do you call upon us to care for others
On this day, we reach beyond our community to pray for all those whose lives have ben impacted by the recent acts of violence at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. We share in the deep sense of loss that their families, friends and community are feeling. We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters across the world, especially as we see the rise of language and actions designed to threaten their wellbeing. We pray that all those entrusted with responsibilities for leadership will use their authority to denounce any words or actions that deny or threaten the sacredness of all people.
O God of all creation, when we lose track of our sacred calling to live in peace, and to resolve conflict in kindly ways, call us back to your vision of peace on earth and good will among all people. When we lose track of the deep interconnectedness of all life, call us back to your vision of peace on earth and good will among all people. When we lose sight of a vision for life on earth that is established on a foundation of mutual respect and kindness, fill us with your love, and strengthen us to be ambassadors of your mercy.
And as we begin to make our transition from this sanctuary to the sanctuary of the wider world, help us at all times and in all places to be an experience of grace for others. Infuse our lives with patience and vision so that we may walk with dignity in the details of our lives while at the same time holding to your loving embrace for all humankind. Help us to relinquish any anxiety about the future, and in its place may we take up the bold adventure of faith, with tough minds and tender hearts.