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.

 

What Is It? (sermon 8/2/15)

Manna Snow

What is it? Is it manna? Actually, I think it’s a light dusting of snow, but the idea is the important thing.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not…. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’  – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

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So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. – John 6:24-35

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Today’s gospel text picks up right where we left off last week – it’s right after the story of Jesus Feeding the Multitude. Here, Jesus and the disciples have gone back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds have followed him here, too, and are asking for a sign to prove that they should believe in him. I guess we can hope that this request was coming from some new people in the crowd, and not the same people who’d just seen the sign, the miracle of Jesus feeding all those people, because if it were coming from the same people, they must have been pretty stupid or had very short attention spans. And as they asked for a sign, they make reference to the Exodus story of God providing manna, bread from heaven, for the Israelites to eat as they wandered through the Wilderness. We heard that story here this morning, too, and even though it’s a little hard to follow after it gets translated into English, the Israelites called the bread “manna,” because that’s the Hebrew phrase for “What is it?”, and that’s exactly what they asked when they first saw it lying all over the ground.

Some people look at this story and say the point is to not be a complainer like the Israelites. That they weren’t justified and they were upsetting God with their whining. The message drawn out of this story is sometimes that when things aren’t going our way, we should just stop complaining; we should just be patient and trust God, and if we’re having problems, it must just be part of God’s grand plan. Frankly, this story has been abused in countless sermons that criticized people standing up and fighting against all sorts of injustice, inequity, and discrimination.

You certainly read in other parts of the Exodus story that the Israelites’ complaining angered God. But if you read this particular story carefully, you don’t see that response from God at all. The people’s complaint was apparently legitimate, and God heard their complaints and provided food for them. Excellent. That’s a much more hopeful message, and it should give us courage to speak out against problems like that, and that God will hear and honor our prayers.

But that leads us to another problem as bad as the first – the idea that because God loves us, God will always provide for our needs. Not for luxuries, of course, but at least all of the basics that we really need to get by. You hear that message in this Exodus story, and in countless other places in the Old and New Testaments, even in Jesus’ words – ask anything in my name, and I’ll do it for you.

And that’s a big problem, because we all know that this is just not true. According to the UN, more than 18,000 children starve to death in the world every single day. In that same single day, another 2,000 children under the age of five dies from plain old, run of the mill diarrhea, for want of a few pennies’ worth of over the counter medicine. Millions of people die each year for want of the basic essentials of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, or basic medical treatment. How are we supposed to square these realities with this idea that we should be assured that God will provide for us? Are we supposed to believe that maybe some people are important to God, while others aren’t?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a good answer to that question. I can’t square these two things. I don’t know why God seems to provide for some, in abundance, even excess, while seemingly ignoring the pain and suffering of others. And I wrestle with preaching, or offering pastoral counsel about the idea of God providing for us when it seems pretty clear that sometimes God doesn’t, at lest not in any meaningful, immediate way, often for the very basics of life, and I don’t know why.

But I do know this: even while it doesn’t seem like God provides for every need, God does provide for much need. All the time. All around us. And when God does provide, it often comes in a way that we don’t immediately recognize or expect. It comes in a way that initially makes us ask “What is it?” Maybe it comes in the form of a “yes” or “no” in our lives, when all conventional wisdom and our expectations were the opposite. Maybe it comes as some surprisingly wise or perceptive observation made by the person you’d least expect it from. Maybe it comes in the form of some new and different thing, or situation, that you’d never have asked for and frankly, wouldn’t have ever thought you’d want, but through it, you found some new strength, new direction, new hope, new opportunity, to be Christ to yourself and to the people around you. But at first, you ask, “What is it?”

In my own experience, I’ve come to see that God is providing so much for us all the time. It covers the ground around us. Through Christ, we have the ability to see it for what it is, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can discern what God’s intention are in providing these things to us.

I heard a story in a seminar yesterday about a little church congregation with declining numbers in a declining section of a city, that was struggling with understanding what they should be doing as a church, what their role was supposed to be in the kingdom of God. There was a park right across the street from the building, but it was run down and the playground equipment was all broken, so no children ever came to play there. The city just let the park go, saying they didn’t have the money to keep it up. The little church had some memorial funds that had been given for the use of children’s ministries, but it had been years since there had been even one child who attended the church. So they took it upon themselves to use those funds and their own volunteer labor to repair the city park and make it usable for the neighborhood children, and before you knew it, there were dozens of kids playing there at any point during the day. So then the little church thought it would be a good idea to throw monthly parties for the kids, and host a picnic for them, and the kids and their parents loved it. And then a few retired schoolteachers thought it would be a good idea to offer the kids after-school tutoring and help with their homework, and the kids loved it. And before long, some of those kids, and some of their parents, started coming in for worship, and when they did, they were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the family from day one. And then some other people came, too, because they’d heard about the amazing way this struggling little church had become truly missional, and the great good they were doing in the neighborhood.

Everything they needed to do it had already been given to them by God. It was right there, all of it, right there in front of them. They just needed to see it in a new light, to put the pieces together in a different way than they were accustomed to. They just allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts, and to see how they could use what God had provided them with.

So today, as we’re sitting here on the lawn, I ask you – what is it that God has provided us with, put right in front of us to use, for us and for others? What is it that God has provided us with as a congregation? And what is it that God has provided you with in your own life? What is it that God calling you, calling us, to do with what we’ve been provided? What is it?

Thanks be to God.

Doodah Parade (Sermon, Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014)

https://i1.wp.com/www.shortnorth.com/DooDah1.jpg

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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Whether we’ve grown up being in church since we were in diapers, or whether we grew up with our only religious exposure being Hollywood movies and television shows, we’ve probably all seen representations, and have our own mental images, of this story that we just heard – Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover feast, and his crucifixion and resurrection. But what must this event really have been like? Do you suppose it was really like the Sunday School pictures, or the movie portrayals? What would the average man on the street – what would Joshua Six-Pack have seen and thought if he happened to see this scene unfolding? 

To give a little perspective, it might help to visualize that in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem had a population under normal circumstances of maybe 40,000 people – just slightly larger than Gahanna. But it had a smaller physical footprint than Gahanna, so while it wasn’t huge, it was still a pretty densely populated place. But during major religious festivals like the Passover, Jewish religious pilgrims flowed into Jerusalem from all around the ancient Mediterranean world, ballooning the population of the city to at least a quarter of a million – making an almost overnight change from a city the size of Gahanna to one about the size of Toledo, full of people speaking dozens of languages, and all of them trying to find a place to eat, and sleep, and go to the bathroom; and all of them trying to get the same picture next to the Roman centurion standing guard, or taking videos of the priests making sacrifices at the Temple and uploading them to youTube; and just trying to make their way through the ten-foot-wide streets making the city just a big hot mess and the whole thing was as chaotic and exciting as Times Square at midday. And every year, as part of this, the Romans would stage a big, impressive parade full of pomp and circumstance, and music and flags and war horses and shields and daggers, all as a welcome to the religious pilgrims pouring into the city to worship and celebrate and spend their money – but more importantly, as a show of force, and as a warning to tourist and resident alike to stay in line – to not to make trouble, or the Roman hammer would come down hard. 

But this year, this particular day, on the other side of town, there was another parade going on – Jesus’ entry into the city. On this day, here comes one average looking man riding into town not on a fancy horse like the Roman generals across town, but on a humble little donkey. He’s just ridden in from this little village out on the Mount of Olives – just about the distance between here and the Bob Evans at Crosswoods – and a bunch of the villagers are flocked around him, shouting out religious praises and waving tree branches and throwing their clothing into the street, and as far as the average bystander can see, basically acting like a bunch of crazy people, making as much of an impression as the annual Doodah parade, if even that. And now they’re pushing into the crowd of the city, getting in the way of tourists trying to get across the street to buy a three-pack of cashmere scarves and postcards from the Holy Land. And some tourist asks who this man on the donkey is, and what the demonstration is all about, and one of the country bumpkins says that this is Jesus, the Messiah who’s going to kick out the whole Roman army and establish God’s rule over all the world. And for a moment, the tourist looks at Jesus, and looks at the people around him. And then he nods his head, and pushes his way past them into the postcard shop, noticing the little hubbub in the street, and then forgetting it before they get to the next intersection.

Maybe that isn’t quite the way we tend to picture this event in our minds, but I’ll bet that to the average bystander in Jerusalem that day, it must have been something very much like that. Something whose point was largely missed in the moment. Something that offered a completely different, alternative message to the big show going on all around them. On this day, Jesus enters Jerusalem, and God speaks to humanity, in a way completely different from conventional wisdom and religious hierarchy and the power and might of the government. 

And that’s the way God usually seem to reach out and speak to us, too. We want to hear God, and get answers to the questions in our lives, clearly, in writing, with bells and whistles, and maybe even fireworks if there’s time to schedule them. But God reaches out to us and speaks to us in different ways. Maybe we’re at some crisis point in our life, feeling unloved and unwanted and unimportant to anyone, and maybe the world would be better off without us. And in that moment, God comes to us as a little girl who reaches up and tugs on our shirtsleeve, and at just the right moment, looks into our eyes and smiles and says “I love you” and gives you a big awkward hug around your knees. 

He was having trouble taking some risky step out in faith that he’d been wrestling with, and he wanted some clear-cut, doubt-free direction from God, but what he got as he sat down at the bar at the Old Bag of Nails was a damp, wrinkled cocktail napkin sitting in front of him that the bartender hadn’t scooped up, and someone had scribbled a note on it that said “Do you trust me?” and it was just signed with the letter G. 

She sat at the kitchen table overwhelmed with worry and fear over two dozen stressful situations she was dealing with, and worrying about how she and her husband, and their kids, were going to get through it. As she sat there, she pushed aside a big pile of unpaid bills, just enough to prop her elbows on the tabletop and without even thinking about it she blurted out “Oh God, what am I going to do?” And suddenly, without warning, and in some way she’s never really been able to describe, she felt a complete, overwhelming sense of peace, and she felt love almost as a physical thing cascading over her like a wave, and she heard a voice that somehow, she just knew was God saying, “It’s OK; everything is going to be all right; I love you.” 

We want steel-reinforced concrete from God, but what we get is the Doodah Parade. What we get are these alternative, counterintuitive ways of reaching into our existence. These things that the great Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, called certain uncertainties, dim half-miracles, oddly relevant sermons at just the right moment, things like that. Things that just might be coincidence, and that’s what many people would write them off as, but that for some reason you just can’t. It’s more than coincidence. For better or worse, it’s that alternative way that God uses to cut through the clutter and the crap and the background noise of our lives to let us know that what we see in the life, death, and resurrection of the man riding into town on the donkey, riding into the chaos of the Old City and the chaos of our lives, is the love, and the way, and the very face, of God. And that no matter what we go through, God will be with us, and see us through anything that life, and all the power and might represented in that other parade might dump on us. In all these little, ambiguous ways, God calls us to come join in the alternative parade on the other side of town; to the alternative way of understanding life and the world – to the reverse logic of the kingdom of God. 

So today, you get to write your own ending to the sermon. Just what did Joshua Six-Pack do when he bumped into this little alternative parade? Did he pass by and forget it? Or did he fall in with the crowd? Did it change his life? 

What did he do? What will we do? 

Thanks be to God.