It’s Love, Simon

(sermon 1/26/20)

Kinnereth - Sea of Galilee (Panorama)

The Sea of Galilee – photo by Zachi Evenor    https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachievenor/12325753455/

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

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It’s a pretty common, and healthy, behavior to want to retreat into a comfortable “safe space” after you’ve been hit with some terrible unsettling experience that’s thrown you off your normal balance. In one way or another, I think we all do it, however we define that safe space for ourselves. At the beginning of today’s gospel text, we see Jesus doing this same thing, after getting word that John the Baptist, his own relative, someone whose life and ministry he knew well, had been arrested and thrown in prison.

Just before this in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had been tempted by Satan in “The Wilderness,” the desolate, barren Judean Desert. We don’t know if the events in today’s text followed that temptation immediately, or if some time had passed, but whatever the case, Jesus was still apparently in Judea or somewhere else far from home when he got the news about John. His response to it was to retreat to familiar territory, in Galilee, for some emotional re-centering. He goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, but he doesn’t stay there long. Matthew doesn’t say why. Maybe Jesus thought that if the authorities had come for John, they’d come for him too, and Nazareth would be an obvious place to look for him. Or maybe the memory of home was better than the reality of home – after all, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ first time teaching in Nazareth upset some of his fellow townsmen so much that they’d tried to kill him. Or maybe he just decided to go from Nazareth to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee because it is strikingly beautiful, then and now, and whose spirit isn’t recharged, and who doesn’t see things more clearly, after a trip to the shore?

So here was Jesus, walking along the Sea, absorbing the warm of the sun, the feeling and the fresh smell of the breeze, the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, the seagulls and albatross flying overhead, the voices of fishermen going about their work. Putting ourselves in that same place, it’s easy to imagine Jesus’ concerns melting away.

And as we heard, on this particular walk Jesus encountered four fishermen in particular, all of whom would become important in his ministry. The first one of them, at least in this telling, was Simon – Simon, this random, average fisherman who was just in the right place at the right time, who would eventually become known as Peter, and whose passion, and wisdom, and courage, and flaws, would all work together to shape our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus even now, 2,000 years later.

I can’t imagine what it was that Jesus said, or how he said it, that made these four fishermen decide to just drop everything and follow him. Some people have suggested it was just the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit that convicted their hearts and convinced them to immediately drop everything and take a completely different path in their lives. Maybe. In my own experience, though, I can say that when I sensed my own call to the ministry, even when I was absolutely convinced about its authenticity, that it had come from God, it still took a lot of time and convincing to actually do it. Maybe these four just really hated fishing, and they were only doing it because it was the family business. Maybe ever since James and John were little children, their father Zebedee would take them down to the shore, show them his three rickety, leaking fishing boats, and the old, worn nets that constantly needed repairing, and the unreliable employees and the backbreaking labor and low pay and the constant smell of dead fish that clung to his skin long after he’d gotten home from work, and he waved his arms over it all and told them “Boys, some day all this will be yours!” Maybe it wasn’t such a hard decision after all.

However it happened, it did happen – and a critical, especially intriguing part of that was Jesus telling them that if they followed him, they’d fish for people. What exactly did that mean, Simon must have wondered to himself. Maybe later that same evening, after they’d spent the whole day speaking with Jesus and learning from him, and they’d all gone to bed, it dawned on Simon that Jesus had fished for him. How did he do it?

Apparently, he hadn’t tried to scare him to death by hanging the threat of eternal damnation and suffering in hell over their heads; he didn’t yell at them that they were lost if they didn’t follow him. Whatever the details of their conversation were, it’s pretty clear that Jesus must have shown Simon and the others an alternative to life as they’d experienced it up to that point. A better way. A way that, in a split second, offered an answer to every one of the countless times they’d looked around at the world and thought to themselves, “The world isn’t supposed to be like this. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. There must be a better way than this.” Whatever he’d said to them, Jesus apparently convinced them that there was.

For the next few years, as they followed and lived with Jesus, he showed them what that better, alternative way of understanding things looked like. This understanding of life wasn’t about power, or wealth, or fame. It wasn’t about just looking out for yourself, or getting ahead or gaining privilege for yourself by pushing other people down or out to the margins. And while life could be hard, and there would always be work to be done, God didn’t expect that to be our whole existence. This way of life that God was calling them into valued work, included resting from work, and activities, and all the busyness; and appreciating beauty, considering the lilies of the field. In the old order of things, strict rules made certain people ineligible to be part of the people of God – but as Simon would travel with Jesus, he saw something new happening. In this new way of understanding God and our world, now persistent Syrophoenician women, despised Samaritans, Ethiopian eunuchs, Gentiles of every kind; sinners, tax collectors, political radicals, religious heretics, weren’t just eligible to be considered God’s people, they were welcomed with open arms.

Why?  Because, as Simon, soon to be Peter, would come to realize, at the core of everything Jesus did, at the core of everything he taught, at the core at the core of this new way of understanding God and ourselves, was love. The fisherman who was told he would fish for people would come to realize that love – loving God, and showing love and compassion to one another regardless of circumstances – which was really just the most authentic way to love God – was at the very core of that. To fish for people, you don’t surround them with a net that they can’t get out of, or try to snag them on a baited hook, or try to force them at all; and you especially don’t try to scare them into this new way. Fishing for people wouldn’t require slick techniques or glossy brochures or massive door-knocking campaigns. That was old world thinking. Already, Simon could see that in this new way, Jesus’ way, all that would be needed would be to surround people with love – enabling them to experience the same love that Jesus showed them, and this same new, better way of understanding God and life that Jesus had intrigued him with earlier that same day.

I guess it would be a fisherman’s dream if they didn’t have to throw out a net at all, or work to haul them up into the boat, but if instead, the fish just jumped into the boat of their own accord. Over time, Simon wouldn’t just gain a new name. He’d eventually come to recognize that if we treated one another in the way Jesus had treated them, and taught them – offering them love, and compassion, and peace, and mercy, there wouldn’t need to be any coercion in fishing for people. Love would make them jump into the boat on their own, just as he’d jumped in himself. But for tonight, this first night of his new journey, Simon was satisfied in just knowing that wherever this was all going to go, it was love that was at the center of it all. That was enough for him in that moment. And with that, he drifted off to sleep.

Thanks be to God.

Love Is Not Optional

(sermon 1/19/20 – Race Relations Sunday)

mlk mug shot birmingham

1 John 4:7-9, 16, 18-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

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In mid-April of 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King found himself locked up in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama – arguably the most thoroughly, and brutally, segregated city in America, although there were certainly countless other contenders for that title. The 34-year old King had come to Birmingham to offer moral support and visibility for the months-long series of nonviolent protests and the boycott by blacks of segregated businesses that had devastated the Birmingham economy. He was arrested when he led a march in town, despite being denied a permit to march by the city’s notorious, brutally racist and segregationist Commissioner for Public Safety, Bull Connor.

In the midst of Dr. King’s presence in Birmingham, a number of white, moderate clergymen jointly wrote an open letter to King saying that while they shared his desire for peace and racial harmony, they couldn’t accept his methods. They hadn’t given enough time for peaceful negotiations to bear fruit through the supposedly proper channels. They called on Dr. King and the black community to just be patient, and wait for slow, steady progress to happen on its own.

Sitting in his jail cell, Dr. King wrote a response to these clergymen, what we now know as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s a profound statement that every American, and certainly every American Christian, should read and meditate on at least once a year. It’s a deep statement from the heart where the issues of civil justice and the gospel intersect.

In his letter, Dr. King addresses the clergymen’s call to wait. After pointing out the long and unsuccessful attempts the local community had already made to go through supposedly proper and legal channels, he wrote:

“For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” … We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. … It is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

The clergymen also complained that the black community was breaking some of the city’s laws, and that while they supported their goals, they couldn’t ever condone breaking the law. Dr. King wrote that it isn’t wrong to disobey an unjust law; that in fact, it was a person’s Christian duty to disobey an unjust law – but, he wrote,

“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. … We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” … It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.”

Finally, Dr. King addresses the problem in a broader way:

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; … who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”…

In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”

Dr. King held those clergymen’s feet to the fire, pointing out to them that love for all of God’s people is not optional – it isn’t dependent upon our own comfort level, or what we’d always been taught, or even official legal sanction from the government, because as Christians, we answer to a higher authority, and the ethics and morality commanded by that authority.

Today, we can be thankful for all of the advances in racial reconciliation that have been achieved, largely through the work of Dr. King, and countless others as well. But at the same time, we have to recognize that there’s still a lot to do. Unfortunately, in current-day debates about issues of race and racial reconciliation, you’ll hear many of the exact same arguments and criticisms, fifty years later, that Dr. King battled in his letter. There is a lot left to be done. And it’s even worse now, because some of the advances made back in Dr. King’s time are being reversed as civil rights laws are being gutted, and some of those same old injustices that caused passage of those laws to begin with are already happening again. We’ve still got miles to go forward, and right now, the gears of our society have been thrown into reverse.

For us, the church, on this Race Relations Sunday, we need to recognize that Dr. King’s message didn’t originate in any partisan politics, or ideology, or abstract philosophy. Rather, every single issue that he spoke out against – racism and racial discrimination, poverty, economic injustice, the hypermilitarism that gripped our society then and that still does today – every issue, and every single argument that he made against them, came directly out of the indisputable core of Christian ethics and moral teaching. And as Christians – and right now, as I look out at you, I see primarily white faces like my own, and I’m speaking here particularly to white Christians – when we look at our world today and try to process what we see – when we see groups like Black Lives Matter protesting in the streets calling for an end to racist policing practices; and we see the New Poor People’s Campaign holding mass rallies around the country protesting institutional racism that’s at the root of so much American poverty; and even us boring, mostly white Presbyterians marching in the streets of St. Louis, and here in Louisville, and probably other cities as well, to call for the elimination of the terribly racist cash bail system; when we see people marching in so many places for racial equity and justice – we need to hear Dr. King’s words again: It isn’t always the right thing to wait. Patience isn’t always a virtue; sometimes it’s a sin. So is accepting and obeying an unjust law, because obeying an unjust law, and refusing to disobey it, makes a person complicit in that injustice.  When we hear the words of the ancient prophets mirrored in the words of this modern-day one, we all need to recognize that love isn’t optional for us, either. And if we’re going to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for us to just say that we aren’t racist – which, to be frank, really isn’t true. We all have racial biases and prejudices within us, and we all take part in racist systems, even the most noble and well-meaning of us. But to the larger point, it isn’t enough for us white Christians to say that we ourselves aren’t racist; we have to be actively “anti-racist” – becoming more aware of the racist structures and systems around us and that we unavoidably take part in, and taking whatever direct steps we can to change them. We have to do that because the ghosts of Birmingham are still with us. Bull Connor never really died; in spirit, he’s still with us. But the good news for us is so is Jesus Christ. Christ emboldens and empowers us for the task of continuing the work of the kingdom of God. And yes, Christ has also told us that in doing this, there will often be consequences. We will sometimes upset and anger friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers. Sometimes, the consequences will be even more severe. We know that Dr. King, and his family, paid a terrible price at the hands of hatred and opposition to his proclaiming the same gospel message that we claim to profess. In spite of that tragedy, we remember Dr. King this weekend, and his powerful witness of Jesus Christ in our time – and for it, we can say

Thanks be to God.

Raise Your Flag

(sermon 1/12/20 – Baptism of the Lord)

raise your flag

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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The author of Matthew’s gospel had a problem. Just as any author, ancient or modern might do, he sat down at his version of a blank legal pad and began planning how to structure his work in a way that told his story – in this case, the story of Jesus – in a way that emphasized the points he wanted to make. But one of the first things he had to deal with was a debate going on among the believers about Jesus’ baptism. He had Mark’s earlier gospel sitting in front of him, and other sources as well, to draw from as he composed his own work, and Mark dealt with Jesus’ baptism very simply. In the midst of Mark telling how John the Baptist was baptizing people for repentance and forgiveness of sins, Jesus shows up, seemingly like anyone else, and asks John to baptize him. Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t seem to recognize in advance that Jesus is the messiah. He apparently doesn’t see any potential theological difficulty with the idea, so he basically shrugs his shoulders and says OK, come on in, the water’s fine. No big deal

But in the ten years or so since Mark wrote his version of the story, Jesus’ followers had started to develop a more complex theological understanding of how Jesus’ reconciliation, his atonement, between God and humanity worked, in which Jesus himself would need to have been sinless, in order, they argued, to be an adequate “sacrifice” acceptable to God to forgive the sin of all humanity. And if that were the case, then why did Jesus get baptized like any other mortal, if Mark was right and baptism was all about repentance and forgiveness of sin?

So as Matthew crafted his account, he had to deal with that. In his account, he doesn’t deny that forgiveness of sin is one meaning of baptism, but he offers an additional meaning to it that helps to soothe some theological discomfort. Matthew’s John the Baptist is in on the knowledge that Jesus is special, the anointed one, when he arrives to be baptized, and he protests – as some believers in Matthew’s time would have – that it would be inappropriate for John to baptize him; in fact, it should be the other way around. But in Matthew’s account, Jesus says no, he should be baptized, in order to “fulfill all righteousness” – which, in Matthew-speak, as he lays out throughout his gospel, means to do in all ways the things that are pleasing to God. So Jesus being baptized is something that would please God.

Now for a moment, I want to move forward to the present-day. Several times a month, George and I will get together with a group of friends, to share a meal together, maybe go out to a show, occasionally play a board game, maybe enjoy some good bourbon and conversation and laughs. Now, there isn’t a person sitting around the table who hasn’t gone through some really thin, difficult financial times in their lives, and everyone gathered there is aware of and grateful for the fact that they’re reasonably secure now. From time to time, though, as the conversations might ebb and flow, someone will say something about some great food – maybe some extremely high-quality beef, or hard-to-find pork, or some delicious exotic cheese they’ve had the pleasure of enjoying; or having enjoyed some exquisite turkey that was organic, free-range, raised by a farmer who they knew; where the turkeys all listen to Beethoven and get daily massages, and the farmer reads them bedtime stories; or maybe having met some famous person, or some other similarly elitist comment – sort of like a real-world version of Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” telling the other kids who are catching snowflakes on their tongues, that she never eats December snow; she will only eat January snow. And often, when that happens in the conversation, someone else might joke to the person speaking that they’re “raising their flag” – meaning that they’re raising their flag of privilege and elitism; that their privilege is showing. Sometimes, instead of actually putting it into words, as the other person is going on, someone will just silently make the gesture with their hands of raising a flag up a flagpole, offering a gentle, good-natured ribbing to whoever’s speaking at the moment, and we’ll all laugh, and the conversation will go on from there.

I mention that because I think that in a way – a more positive way, to be sure – a large aspect of Matthew’s understanding of baptism, and what fulfilling all righteousness,” doing those things that are pleasing to God, lies in something similar. To Matthew, in addition to baptism signifying forgiveness of sin, it also signifies the flag that, being baptized, we’re now called to live under, and to be loyal to. So Jesus being baptized, then, symbolizes that Jesus is part of this movement – certainly, in the way we typically use that term, but mostly in the sense that he is at the very center of a literal moving of world history, of human existence, in a new direction, into a new era – an era of the partial incoming of the kingdom of God into this life. Through the act of his baptism, God has raised this flag over Jesus, both identifying God’s pleasure and Jesus’ central part in it all.

Matthew might have found a way to address that theological issue regarding Jesus’ baptism. But others remain. In the earliest years of the church, and up until this day, for example, many have suggested that it was at his baptism, and not at the time of his birth – at the time of the Holy Spirit descending upon him and God’s voice of loving approval – when Jesus became God incarnate – as we say, “fully human and fully divine.”

And of course, Matthew’s literary take on baptism didn’t really settle the issue he was trying to settle, either. It continues to this day. Many of our literal neighbors, our Evangelical siblings in the faith, emphasize the idea of baptism primarily signifying forgiveness of sins – and most significantly, that it signifies our choice, the exercising of our free will, to “raise the flag” as it were, to be followers of Christ. On the other hand, we Mainliners, and certainly we Presbyterians, recognize baptism as a sign of forgiveness of sin, but we especially emphasize its being a seal of God making a unilateral covenant with us to be part of this identity, this movement, of Christ-followers and the kingdom of God – and especially, that baptism doesn’t signify us choosing to raise our flag, but rather, it’s a sign of us recognizing that God has chosen to raise that flag over us – that, as I sometimes say when baptizing an infant, we don’t believe baptism is a sign of what we’re doing, but rather, it’s a sign of what God has already done.

Beyond that ongoing theological debate between Evangelicals and Mainliners, one thing is definitely true: after our baptism, we are indeed called by God to “raise our flag” – to visibly do those things that please God, that “fulfill all righteousness,” which, to Matthew, is always acting in ways that are loving and merciful. After our baptism, we’re called by God to act in ways that make it clear to those around us that, in gratitude for the love, mercy, and grace that God has showered us with, we’re trying to live and treat others with that same kind of love, mercy, and grace. Regardless of the finer points of how we understand or want to emphasize baptism, all Christians – all who profess to have followed Jesus into those waters of baptism and come back up out of them wth him – are called to be a visible witness to the world of an alternative way – a better way – than what we see around us on a daily basis. And what do we see? Greed. Arrogance. Selfishness. Violence. Threats of war. Cruelty. The dehumanizing, belittlement, or worse, of people just because they aren’t sufficiently like ourselves. The hoarding of wealth and resources that has created and kept the vast majority of the world’s population in abject poverty.

Every Christian is called, you and I are called – lovingly called, but called nonetheless – to reflect God’s love for us outward to others, by opposing all of those distortions of God’s will, of God’s righteousness – and not just to speak out against them, and not just to pray about them, but to concretely work and fight to end them, regardless of where we find them; in whatever situation, whatever institution; in whatever corporate policy or educational policy or governmental policy; in whatever person, whatever office or position. We’re called to let every human being know that they are loved, and not just to let them know they’re loved, but to actually love them; to actually offer them compassion, and mercy, and justice. To that point, the great twentieth-century priest and theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that bridges all divides and heals all wounds.” That, friends, is a flag of privilege that. out of gratitude and love, we should all be ready, willing, and proud to raise.

Thanks be to God.

Frankincense, Gold, & Har Gow

(sermon 1/5/20 – Epiphany Sunday)

har gow

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Right after Christmas, George and I hit the road, taking off on a long road trip to visit family and friends. Beyond it just being nice to catch up, this was even more special for George because this was the first opportunity to return to Canada, since he was prohibited from leaving the country while his green card was in process. First, we visited George’s parents in western Ontario, near London. Then, we drove east to catch up with his brother and his family, and to see our nephew playing in a hockey tournament. After that, we went on to Toronto for more visits. Then we turned south, back to the U.S., going to Pennsylvania to visit with some of my relatives, then to Ohio to visit with some more of them, and finally, heading back home to Louisville.

While we were in Toronto, we also made arrangements to reconnect with some of George’s relatives in Richmond Hill – a city of about 200,000 people a half hour or so north of downtown Toronto. Toronto itself is a wonderful racially and culturally diverse city, maybe more so than any other city I’ve been in, and the full range of excellent restaurants there reflects the full breadth of that diversity. But to those in the know, if you want the best authentic Chinese food in the area, you go to Richmond Hill. So, as we’d done in the past, we all got together at a restaurant in Richmond Hill that serves the most amazing, authentic dim sum I’ve ever had. If you aren’t familiar with dim sum, it’s a traditional style of dinner that originated in Hong Kong, where you order a lot of small orders of all sorts of traditional Chinese snacks – barbecued pork steamed buns, soup-filled dumplings, deep-fried squid, meat or shrimp-stuffed rice noodles, and on and on – that are meant to be shared around the table.

So there we were again on this trip, in this huge banquet facility that had at least 250 people in it, and probably more. As I glanced around, I could see that I was one of probably only three of four non-Asian people there, which was fine – I felt completely at ease and welcome sharing this good time with extended family. I only mention that to make the point that this was a very authentic Chinese place, serving an almost exclusively Chinese clientele, which means that the menu was written almost completely in Chinese – what English translations were there were sparse and ambiguous, to put it mildly. So I didn’t really know what a lot of the dim sum dishes on the menu were, as all the Chinese speakers at the table were picking out small plates to order from the menu.

I’ve had dim sum enough to have a number of personal favorites that I think are delicious. But the palate is definitely a culturally conditioned thing, and honestly, I’ve had some dim sum dishes that, to my admittedly limited and deficient Anglo palate, tasted something like grass clippings wrapped in congealed wallpaper paste – but I also knew that the very same plate was delicious to George, who grew up with those tastes and textures, and it brought back all kinds of warm memories of family gatherings from his past.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though – those less-than-favorites dishes for me are actually pretty rare – I really like most of them. And as my own palate is evolving – improving – over time, I’m appreciating more of them all the time. And eating those dishes with the extended family sitting around the table makes it all the better. Still, since I don’t always know what’s coming, one of my favorite parts of these meals is when the food starts to arrive, usually in little covered bamboo steamer baskets, and they’re placed on the table, and the lids are ceremoniously removed, revealing what, for better or worse, is inside.

Even sitting there in that wonderful moment of the big reveal, though, the pastor’s brain is never completely on vacation, and as odd as it might sound, I was still aware that this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, was coming up – and sitting there waiting to see what was going to be inside when those little bamboo steamers were opened up made me think about the magi, and the treasures, the gifts, that they brought with them and presented to the Christ child.

I started to imagine the scene: Jesus is being cradled in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph, as they welcome these strangers from far away. And did she and Joseph wonder, as I wondered about the dim sum steamers, what would be revealed when they opened the lids of the gifts they’d brought? No doubt, they were grateful for the gold. But did they really appreciate the frankincense? The myrrh? I mean, a little bit of either of them goes a long way. Would burning the frankincense trigger Mary’s asthma? Did they worry that baby Jesus would get ahold of the myrrh and choke on the little crystalline nuggets? All things considered, would they have rather gotten a child seat for the back of the donkey and a Pack ‘n Play? We all know that when you open a gift, you never really know what’s going to be in store when it’s opened.

The journey of the magi from the region that we now know as Iran and Iraq, regardless of how many of them there really were, and regardless of whether they were all men or not, and regardless of even how wise they might have been, has become one of our most beloved aspects of our sacred story of Jesus’ entry into human history. But to take the story further, what meaning can it have for us now?

Their coming to worship and pay homage to the newborn Jesus, the anointed one of God, and offering him gifts, can certainly be seen as a forerunner to our own worship of him – our own offering of our lives, our devotion, our talents, our resources, all in a spirit of gratitude.

But I think the reverse is also true. The magi presenting of gifts to Jesus can also be seen as a reflection of God’s offering us gifts – first, the gift of Christ himself, but so much else that follows, too. Sitting here at the beginning of a new year, we’re receiving gifts from God, whether we imagine them as treasure chests, or bamboo steamers, waiting to be opened up to reveal what’s inside, or we imagine them some other way.

What will this year bring for you? What will it bring for me? For each of us, the year will bring times of joy and contentment, as well as times of challenge. We might experience real happiness and fulfillment arising out of our relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, those same relationships might bring stress, pain, or grief. We might enjoy good health, or we might face difficult, maybe insurmountable, health problems.

I want to be very careful here – I don’t want to leave the impression that everything that happens to you, or to me, during this year will be God’s choice or will. I don’t believe that God literally deals with us in flippant or uncaring ways, as, for example, the story of Job would indicate, where God takes away everything from Job, health, family, fortune – everything – just over a stupid bet God supposedly makes with Satan. I don’t believe that God sends us troubles, not even with the intention of testing us or making us stronger. And on the flip side, I don’t believe that every good thing that happens to us is a sign of God’s favor, either. So many times you’ll see the survivor of some tragedy, a plane crash, a fire, whatever – and the person will thank God for their survival, saying it’s a sign that God loves them – but didn’t God love the ones who didn’t survive, too? Did God love this survivor more than the others? To be honest, whether we ascribe all of the good, or all of the bad, in our lives to God is actually pretty flawed theology.

The gifts that I think God gives us in our lives aren’t necessarily the actual good thing or the bad thing that we experience – but rather, what’s in the treasure chests that God gives to us – what’s waiting to be revealed inside those bamboo steamers – is God’s own love, and grace, and strength, and guidance to deal with both the good and the bad in ways that please God, and that strengthen our lives of faith, that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Another of these gifts is the gift of community, the church, this congregation, to help us in the good and the bad. The greatest of these gifts that God serves up to us is the reassurance that through the life of this Christ child, the one worshiped by the magi, God has chosen to stand with us, to walk with us, to let us know that we are loved beyond our wildest dreams, and that whatever may come, good or bad, we will never face it alone.

There will be ups and downs, and no shortage of surprises along the way this trip around the sun, for you and me both. But whatever comes, we can be assured that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. We can know that once God has invited us to the great, eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, there is nothing that could ever keep us from it. And we can rest assured  that at that banquet in addition to the finest bread and well-aged wine, as the scriptures say, and the choicest of meats filled with marrow, there will also be plenty of xiao long bao, cha siu bao, and har gow.

Thanks be to God.