St. Philip Lutheran Church
6 January 2022 + Epiphany of Our Lord
Bp. Yehiel Curry
What were they searching for?
Three (or maybe more) field experts traveled to the other end of the earth in search of a star. After their exhausting journey, they arrived at their destination. The seldom used room of the run-down establishment was so small that if you stood at its center and stretched out both of your arms in opposite directions, your fingers could nearly touch the walls.
As they squeezed into a corner of the dimly lit room, it’s unlikely they were prepared for what came next. The singer, Sam Harris, did not look like the star they were searching for.
Sam left his hometown of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, at the age of 15 in pursuit of a singing career. He first landed in Nashville before relocating to Hollywood in the early 1980s, where he played sparsely filled music venues - just prior to being invited to audition for a new talent competition that would premiere on national television in 1983.
Before Blake Shelton and The Voice, before Nick Cannon and The Masked Singer, even before Simon Cowell and American Idol, there was Ed McMahon and Star Search. Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, LeAnn Rimes, Usher, the Backstreet Boys, and Pitbull all had their stardom propelled by Star Search. But in its debut season, in 1983, the world was talking about Sam Harris.
And yet, when the producers and talent agents first pressed into the fusty, 10-by-11 foot room to hear Sam Harris sing… they were not impressed. Sam’s fear engulfed him. He didn’t have the look or sound of a star. So, initially, Sam was not selected for the show.
They were searching for a star, but by all appearances, it seemed like their search had failed.
The magi had already found their star of a different sort. This star, they thought, meant a king had been born, and their search naturally led them first to Jerusalem, to the palace of King Herod, to the seat of political power. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” the magi asked. “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
But their search would quickly hit a dead end. The king they sought was not where they expected. For all the magi knew about astronomy and astrology from their limited first-century perspective, their search led them to more questions than answers. What were they searching for?
What are we searching for?
For the past two years, it feels like we have been in our own exhausting, seemingly endless season of searching and longing. As COVID cases surge, divisions between us deepen, and church attendance dwindles, we have been left with more questions than answers.
When will the pandemic end? Will it end? When will things go back to “normal”?
Why are we so divided? Can’t we all just get along - or agree on even one thing? What is truth? What is “fake news”? Will we ever fully trust again? Did we ever trust to begin with?
Where is everyone in our pews? When will they come back? Will they come back? What happens next? Will our congregation survive?
Far from being answered, the questions themselves more often than not spiral into more questions and fears and anxieties. This time last year, we surely thought we’d be back to “normal” by Christmas 2021, but with another year of online church and half-empty pews (at best), we’re not so optimistic anymore. We’re afraid the pandemic might never end. Maybe this is our new normal.
In the absence of answers, our questions and fears get the better of us. Herod had no answers for the magi in their search, and the magi’s questions stoked fears of competition, succession, boundaries, and change.
Paralyzed by the fear that it might hasten decline, congregations back away from brave and bold new choices about their ministries and see them as “too risky.” Preachers temper their messages on important social issues when they might be perceived as “too political” and only deepen existing divisions. Longtime churchgoers look around at empty pews once filled with familiar and beloved faces and wonder who - or what - will be left when the time comes for their funeral. New deacons and pastors stepping into their first calls, burdened by debt from years of education and formation, are afraid that anything less than a full-time position won’t be able to support them and their families.
In our searching, questions and fears abound.
Sam Harris’s story didn’t end the day the producers and talent agents dismissed him in that fusty and dimly lit 10-by-11 foot room. Star Search had eight categories that included vocals, dance, spokesmodel, and comedy. Each week the champion and challenger of each category competed head-to-head, and the winner got to return the next week to compete again. Sam won thirteen male vocal category competitions in a row. The world was captivated by him. He would go on to be a multi-million selling recording artist with nine studio albums to his credit. It would take a couple more weeks after Sam’s initial audition for the creators of Star Search to realize that Sam Harris was indeed the gift they needed and the star they were searching for.
In the magi’s search, it turns out that Jerusalem was just a detour on the way to their ultimate destination. When they saw that the star had stopped - not over a grand palace at the center of political or religious authority - but over Bethlehem of Judea, they were overwhelmed with joy. The magi could’ve hardly expected where their search would wind up, but at long last, they too found the gift they needed and the king they were searching for.
What are we searching for?
In our quest for answers, we often look to the cosmos (somewhere “up there”) for hope - searching far and wide for what we think we need, the “next big thing” that will propel our ministry forward and balance our budgets for another year.
We search far and wide, and we miss the Christ in our own communities that shines brightly in our midst. These last two years, the pandemic has helped us to search out the stars and excavate the leaders in our midst that we did not realize were there all along.
These star leaders have helped us with video recording, post-production, and livestreaming - concepts that for most of our congregations weren’t even in our vocabulary two years ago, but now are a part of our very DNA, enabling us to reach members who have moved away or family who live across the country or those who might not be able to physically travel to church for whatever reason.
These star leaders have filled gaps we never thought we’d have to fill, stepping up to volunteer roles to meet the needs of our communities that we never thought we’d have to meet.
These star leaders have helped us innovate in ways we would have never before dreamed of - and the result has been more creative ways of doing and being church together that are more robust and meaningful than ever.
Maybe, like Sam Harris, they don’t look the part at first. Maybe, like the magi’s detour to Jerusalem, they’re not where we first think to look. Maybe, we’re still in the middle of our searching and there are still stars and gifts to be discovered.
Amid fears and questions, we often have no idea where the search will lead or end up. But thanks to the search, we are now paying attention.
Thanks to the search, we have found and will continue to find the gifts we need.