Sermon: Be careful when choosing your lodestar

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Epiphany 2019

As usual, in the lead-up to today’s celebration of the Epiphany, I have been thinking about stars. I have especially been considering the concept of the ‘lodestar’. A lodestar is a star used for navigation, typically the pole star, Polaris or Alpha Ursae Minoris, in the Northern Hemisphere. We don’t have a pole star in the south, but the Southern Cross is used in a similar way, with the help of the Pointer Stars. According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the use of the word ‘lodestar’ in navigation comes from Middle English, 1150-1349, and the use of ‘lodestar’ as a metaphor, meaning ‘the person or thing on which one’s attention or hopes are fixed’ is late Middle English, 1350-1469.  So we’ve been talking about metaphorical lodestars for centuries now.

The word ‘lodestar’ became of some interest last year because it was used in an anonymous opinion piece written for the New York Times titled ‘I am part of the resistance’ apparently written by an official in the Trump White House. That piece described the late Senator John McCain as a ‘lodestar for restoring honour to public life and our national dialogue’ which led people to suggest that it had been written by the Vice President, Mike Pence, who has a fondness for the word. (As far as I’m aware the author of the Op Ed remains unknown.) It’s interesting that the quote the Shorter Oxford uses to illustrate the metaphorical use of ‘lodestar’ comes from the satirical 20th century poet Dorothy Parker who wrote in a poem published in 1926 called ‘Social Note’:

Lady, lady, should you meet
One whose ways are all discreet,
One who murmurs that his wife
Is the lodestar of his life,
One who keeps assuring you
That he never was untrue,
Never loved another one . . .
Lady, lady, better run![1]

Both these uses, in the Op Ed and in Parker’s poem, remind us that following one’s ‘lodestar’ is not necessarily a good thing. It definitely depends on who or what that lodestar is.

Epiphany is a day we remember with stars and a lodestar in particular. Wise men from the East saw Jesus’ star at its rising and came to pay him homage, bringing him gifts. The star went before them and when it stopped over the house where Jesus was the magi were overwhelmed with joy. It was an epiphany, a moment of great and sudden illumination, as the Messiah was revealed to Gentiles, showing that Jesus had been born for all of humanity even if the magi were looking for one they called the ‘king of the Jews’.

But of course that is not the whole story. I have mentioned before the utter stupidity of these apparent ‘wise men’ who, rather than simply following the star, went to Jerusalem to ask King Herod for help in finding his new-born rival. It is because of their action that Herod kills all the boys under the age of two years in Bethlehem. It is because of their action that Joseph, Mary and Jesus have to flee to Egypt. The author of Matthew’s gospel writes that this had to happen: ‘This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”’ Nowadays, looking at the refugee crisis in the world, I wonder whether it happened to remind us that anyone can become a refugee, that God himself became an asylum seeker in Jesus. But whatever the deeper reason, the author of Matthew’s gospel tells us that the actions of the magi led to ‘A voice [being] heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ The people who provoked this do not deserve the name ‘wise’

But the magi do finally make it to Bethlehem, and here they do finally show their wisdom – recognising Jesus as king. In Matthew’s story, the magi are the only people who worship Jesus as he deserves, kneeling down and offering him homage. Matthew contrasts these Gentiles who honour the ‘king of the Jews’ with Herod who calls himself ‘king of the Jews’ and pretends that he wants to offer Jesus homage, but actually seeks to kill him. Despite their blunder in frightening Herod and all Jerusalem, we can see that the magi truly are ‘wise’ in their acknowledgement of Jesus. They then return home another way; Joseph, Mary and the baby seek refuge in Egypt; Herod slaughters all of the children under the age of two in Bethlehem. The nativity story is over. Most of the rest of Jesus’ life will be much less suitable for children to act out.

The star that the magi followed was a literal lodestar, a star used for navigation. I suspect the magi’s metaphorical lodestar was knowledge. Their thirst for knowledge led them to seek it from the existing king of the Jews at his court in Jerusalem, a ridiculously unwise thing to do and something that could only be done by people blinded by their desire to know to all common sense. I sympathise with them. Those of us who seek knowledge above anything can often be blind to the human implications of it. How many people whose work was necessary to the creation of atomic bombs foresaw Hiroshima? Taking pure knowledge as one’s lodestar can seem an admirable thing to do, but not if it leads one to ignore the potential impact of that knowledge on real, living, people. The magi are a warning to all seekers after fact and truth.

What other lodestars do people follow? One’s spouse or family is a popular lodestar. In her poem Dorothy Parker was scathing about those who claimed that hypocritically, but the danger is just as real for those who believe it sincerely. A lot of wrong has been done by those who claim to be doing it for their families. Coincidentally, I’ve been re-reading Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books on very hot days when my brain isn’t working well, and Miss Marple refers to murderers who think that committing murder for the sake of those they love makes it alright. Miss Marple calls that ‘muddled thinking’. I’ve never known anyone to commit murder for their family, I suspect the number of murderers that Jane Marple knew was unusual, but I do know people who ignore the needs of the rest of the world because their family comes first.

There are the obviously sinful lodestars: wealth; power; consumption, but the most dangerous lodestars are those that seem benign: knowledge; family; faith. Of course I’m going to say that the only lodestar we should have is God, that like the magi we should follow the star that leads us to Jesus. But we are sinful human beings, and even when we are certain that we have taken God as the one on whom our hopes are fixed we can go wrong. This week I read an article written by a Baptist minister in Dallas in the USA in which he suggested that 2019 be the year in which the church says ‘we were wrong’. He gave seven areas in which the universal church could declare its error:  we were wrong about race; we were wrong to protect sexual predators; we were wrong about women; we were wrong about what it means to be ‘pro-life’; we were wrong to exclude people from God’s grace because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; we were wrong to measure the kingdom of God in numbers more than in souls; and we were wrong to put our hope in politics. I have shared his article on my website if you would like to read it. The Uniting Church has less to apologise for in some of those areas than some other churches, but we too must remember that even when we try to put God at the centre of our lives we can get things wrong. We are all sinners, and none of us is perfect.

And yet I am still going to end today by encouraging you to make God the lodestar of your life. Today we celebrate the epiphany, a sudden and unexpected revelation, a new perspective on everything. The revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles reminds us that the Creator of the stars became a baby to be with us. Epiphany, like the Nativity, reminds us that we are never left alone. We may sometimes stray off the road to which God guides us but, as the Basis of Union puts it, we have ‘the gift of the Spirit in order that [we] may not lose the way’. This year, let us take Christ as our lodestar and sincerely seek to follow where he leads. Amen.

[1] Dorothy Parker, Complete Poems, New York: Penguin, 1999, p. 61.

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