Light-Bearers

(sermon 2/9/20)

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Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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Just last week, we heard that well-known passage from Micah, with its memorable final summary sentence – what does God require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s a beautiful example of an Old Testament declaration of what’s at the core of the gospel, that the transcendent, eternal God of the universe knows us, and loves us, and wants love for all of us.

But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds after we hear Micah’s beautiful words before we start wondering what it really means. I mean, they’re really pretty vague. What do those words look like in the real world, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

Today’s text from Isaiah is a tailor-made answer to that question. Here, the prophet lays out a detailed shopping list of things that God considers pleasing – the truest “fast,” as it’s put here, and the truest kind of worship: undoing injustices. Freeing the oppressed. Feeding the hungry. Sheltering the homeless; helping the afflicted.

It would be easy at this point to make this another sermon banging the drum to do more, more, more to help others, and it can become frustrating, and frankly annoying, to get a message that no matter what we do, apparently it doesn’t seem to ever be enough, because here’s this preacher beating us over the head, telling us again that we still need to do more, and making us feel guilty  because we aren’t.

Well, there no doubt are times for a sermon that calls us to consider our lives of faith, and ask ourselves whether we’re doing all we should, in terms of that list of things that Isaiah lays out. Maybe that’s another sermon for another day; maybe next month, or the month after that; I don’t know. But today, I want to go in another direction, because just as there are times to wonder about doing more, there are also times to recognize the good that we are accomplishing in Christ’s name. It’s important to do that, we have to do that, because even though we are doing many good things, and we are really trying to do them with all the sincerity of our hearts, some days, some weeks, months, it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. The injustice, the oppression, the selfishness and lies, the abuses – the darkness – just keeps coming and what we’re doing doesn’t seem to make a dent in the seeming black hole of evil that fills parts of our world. It can feel like we’re banging our heads against a wall, that it’s all a big exercise in futility, and we’re tempted to just throw up our hands and say forget it, I’m not even trying anymore; I quit.

To be sure, and just as with the Micah passage from last week, this passage from Isaiah begins with God criticizing the people for not doing these things. But both that passage and this one concludes  with hope, and this one goes even farther and offers a promise –  and it’s that promise that I want to focus on today.

In the second half of today’s passage, God tells the people that if they did those things, if they lived that way and worked toward those things, their “light shall break forth like the dawn.” Their work isn’t ever in vain, no matter how futile it might seem in the moment. That God would satisfy them in the “parched places” of their lives, and they would be like a “watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”

Have you ever been swimming somewhere on a hot day – maybe you had a favorite swimming hole when you were younger, or maybe even now; maybe some pond nestled in the woods? Maybe the pond where a little waterfall that pours down into it, and you can get under the waterfall and just let the water flow, just cascade down all over you? Even if you never have, you can probably imagine how refreshing it would be; how in that moment, all your cares washed away and you felt renewed in your very soul. That’s the kind of feeling that God is describing here, promising that our efforts to do those things  would not be in vain. God would notice, and the good that we’d sought – our light – would radiate outward from us and would bring light into the world, into places and people we might never know.

So let’s do that today. Yes, we know that there’s plenty wrong with our world. And yes, we know that we need to continue to work to right injustices, and end oppression, to feed and shelter the needy, to end affliction. But right now, let’s just consider what good we actually are accomplishing. I’d like you to take a moment now. Relax; get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes, or at least bow your heads; don’t look at me. Take a few deep breaths. … Now I want you to think about the good that you are doing as an expression of your faith in God, your devotion to Christ. Think about the things that you do personally…. or your family does… or that we do as a congregation… … Think about the refugees and immigrants that have been helped… think about the homes that have been built…. think about the at-risk children whose needs have been met, the Christmas presents received…. the food that has been put on countless unknown tables….  the people who have been warmed by clothing and blankets…. the grieving who have been comforted…. the sick who have received medical help…. Realize, and accept, that it isn’t an exaggeration to say that because of you, actual lives have been saved…. ……

…. Now as you think of those things, let yourself feel God’s compassion …. feel God’s love flowing down over you like the waterfall flowing into the pond and bathing you, cleansing you, renewing you…. know that what you’re doing, what we’re doing, is making a difference in ways seen and unseen…. know that God knows, and is pleased with those efforts….. your work is not in vain…. you, and the love that you show, are precious in God’s sight…. feel that this morning…… Let yourself accept the love that God is surrounding you with…. let yourself accept that your light is breaking forth…

OK, you can open your eyes. Of course, nothing’s changed since you closed them. There are still a lot of things wrong in the world, still lots of work to do. But there’s also a lot that has been accomplished in Christ’s name, too. Christ’s light is breaking into the world in countless ways and to countless people – and you are a part of that. You are light-bearers – and God calls that very good.

Thanks be to God.

 

The Trial of the Century

(sermon 2/2/20)

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Photo: Brian Turner [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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It’s always important to understand the context of any Lectionary text, but maybe it’s even more important when we come around to such a well-known passage as this one from Micah. Its words are familiar, but what exactly was the underlying situation that brought it about? In this case, the mock trial imagery of this passage is the culmination of the first five chapters of the book. There, the prophet Micah is laying out a criticism of Judah and Israel – the two kingdoms that once made up the single, unified kingdom ruled by kings Saul, David, and Solomon, before splitting as a result of squabbles within the royal family and underlying political, social, and religious divisions between the north and south. Micah himself was from the southern kingdom, but he laid out his criticism on both the north and south kingdoms, and their capitals, Jerusalem and Samaria, with equal measure. He takes the leaders and the powerful in both kingdoms to task because they treat the people unjustly. According to Micah, they mistreat women and children. Their greed makes them take away other people’s homes, property, ability to make a living, for their own enrichment. They come up with all kinds of schemes to feather their own nests, and they carry the schemes out with impunity because they have all the power, and there’s no one who has sufficient power or courage to stop them. It’s all about money and power to them. Judges are bribed to render decisions that favor the powerful over the powerless. Religious leaders pervert religion, interpreting it in ways that give approval, and supposedly God’s own sanction and blessing, to the rich and powerful, who give them power and wealth in return. Then, after enriching and empowering themselves at others’ expense, they surround themselves with walls to keep others away, and, as Micah puts it, they call out for “Peace” when their own mouths are full, against those who have nothing to eat.

After laying out these charges against them, Micah warns the kingdoms that they have earned God’s wrath, and that both of them will be brought down; both their capital cities will be destroyed and turned to rubble.

All of that, then, sets up today’s text – this dramatic scene of the “trial of the century,” as it were. Now that Micah has spelled out the charges, God steps in and adds icing on the cake. God asks what is was that God had ever done to them to make them act so horribly. God reminds them of a number times in their history when they were saved by God’s hand, and when God was faithful and fulfilled the covenant made between them.

Despite this, the defendant in the trial – the “mortal”, the person in power who’s being called out – just doesn’t get it. Maybe reinforced in their cluelessness by those religious leaders who twisted religious principles to give them cover for their actions, the mortal is actually indignant at having their actions criticized. They’re the leaders of the people, supposedly God’s chosen ones, so how can what they’re doing be wrong? They deserve to be enriched, because whatever is in their own best interest is in the kingdom’s best interest; what’s good for them is what’s good for the kingdom. As far as God is concerned, all they have to do is meet their weekly religious obligation – take an hour or so each week, make your sacrifice, your offering to appease, to buy off, God, and then get back to business the rest of the week.

And then the mortal falls back on what they’re comfortable with. They see everything as transactional; everything boils down to a simple business deal where everyone, and everything, has its price. So all right, I think you’re being unreasonable, the mortal says to God, but come on, we’re all adults here, we know how this works. What do you want? Thousands of rams, rivers of oil, are you so unreasonable that you’d want me to even give up my own child? Of course not; let’s be reasonable. What do you really want?

You can imagine Micah shaking his head at how clueless the mortal is, and he blurts out, are you an idiot? You just heard what God wants. It really isn’t any kind of sacrifice, large or small, that just gives you cover to continue hurting the people to feed your own greed and selfishness. What does God want? It’s simple: Do justice. Love kindness. Get off your “we’re the greatest” high horse and walk humbly with God.

It’s important to recognize here that Micah is calling out the kings, the rulers of these kingdoms that were kings by virtue of royal bloodline or military force; they were chosen by the people. God is calling these two kingdoms, nations, into judgment – just as we see in Jesus’ depiction of the final judgment in Matthew 25, the “judgment of the nations.” I don’t know how that works, but apparently, in some way we are accountable both as individuals as well as collectively  as nations, and how the nations have acted.

Through Micah, God was passing judgment on kings. But we aren’t ruled by a king. We have a say in who governs over us. We have a say in how the rich and powerful are regulated to prevent abuses; how the government will provide for the needs of the poor, the sick, the foreigner; and how our society will provide social equity and justice for all of its people. So we have an obligation, as an integral part of our faith, to always work in ways that call our government to accountability, to act in ways of justice and kindness and compassion for all people, in ways that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel hadn’t.

At the core of the failures of those two kingdoms, according to God, is that they allowed their own self-centeredness and greed to cause them to forget God’s faithfulness – God’s continuing to provide for them and care for them, as part of the covenant God had made, and never broken, with them. As one example, God reminds of them of what happened when they had crossed “from Shittim to Gilgal.” This is a reference to the Hebrews completing their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and finally crossing over into the promised land – Shittim was the last place they were before crossing over the Jordan River into the promised land on its western shore, at Gilgal. That crossing wasn’t just a physical movement; it was the culmination, the fulfillment of God’s promise; it was the evidence that God was being faithful to the covenant between them. This morning, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper, among other things a remembrance and a recognition that we’re in God’s covenant, too. We can, and do, sometimes forget that, and we don’t always live our lives in ways that recognize and honor that covenant. We recognize that even though God was condemning two kingdoms, two nations, for not acting with compassion and equity for all of God’s people, that same charge from God applies to us all as individuals, too. And as a part of our partaking of this meal, this sacrament, we’re recommitting ourselves to be true to that covenant that we’re living within. So this morning, eat the bread. Drink the wine. Recommit to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And demand a society that does the same.

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.

 

Gratitude

(sermon 10/13/19)

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Photo by Marcus Wökel – used with permission    http://www.pexels.com

(with gratitude to Rev. Dr. David Lose, whose words heavily inspired this sermon)

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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There are some people I know who do something important every day. It’s something simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Every single day, in some way or another, they set aside time in their day, which is just as busy as my own, to take stock of what they’re grateful for. They keep “gratitude journals,” or just observe a bit of quiet time to intentionally reflect on the day that’s just passed, and actually name the things that they’re grateful for. Some of them take this a step further and actually jot a note, or maybe more often now, an email, to reach out and acknowledge their gratitude to someone who had something to do with it.

I wish that I were more like these people. I want to be, because there is so much that I really am grateful for. But at least up until now, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the discipline to do this, and I’m the worse off for it. Because without doing this in some way, it’s easy to forget, or at least to take for granted, the things that mean so much to us, the things that we’re so grateful for, and the people responsible for them.

This comes into play in today’s gospel text. Ten suffering people come to Jesus for help and healing. All ten receive that help, but only one takes the time to thank Jesus for having been healed. I’m pretty sure the other nine were grateful, too, but ultimately, only one of them actually expressed it to Jesus.

Except for some people who have serious psychological and emotional issues, feeling gratitude is a natural, involuntary human emotion. But taking it the extra step, and expressing that gratitude with our words and actions, is a choice – one that can have a huge effect in our own lives, but that also can have a remarkable effect on the people around us. A simple “thank you” is something far more powerful and transformative than would seem possible from just two little words. Just think how you feel when someone takes the effort to just say thank you, or does something nice for you, because of something you’ve done for them. Even when you think that no thanks is necessary, and you mean it, it’s still powerful when that thanks is offered.

There are all kinds of different emotions that we feel in any given day. Whether it’s because of things going on in the news, or some family situation, or a work thing, or a health or aging issue, our emotions can run the full spectrum from joy to sorrow to worry to fear to shame to rage, and everything in between. And there are certainly appropriate times to express all of those emotions. Sometimes, we’re just in a place where we just can’t express gratitude for something even if we’re actually very grateful for it. Our other emotions can come into play and tongue-tie us, even when we can see it happening, and many times, we can’t. It’s OK; we’ve all been there at some point or another. We all understand that. In those times, we see the importance of this, the whole church family, when together, we can help carry one another over those patches; we can lift one another up and offer emotional support and compassion for one another until we can get through those times. Until we can work through those other emotions and get to the point where we really can choose to express gratitude and to live gratefully again.

Like most things, expressing gratitude is something that gets easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the better you feel – the more grateful you are. And the more you help others. You become an illustration, and example for others.

These days, expressing gratitude is truly a counter-cultural idea. Anger, hostility, violence, distrust, transactional tit-for-tat vengefulness, tribalism, rage – these are the emotions and things that are shaping our culture at the moment. But just imagine how much of that could be defused if we “choose to refuse”. To refuse to play that game. To refuse to express those knee-jerk emotions, and instead, to take stock of the good and to express gratitude to God and others in our words and actions. Expressing gratitude has the power to change the world – it’s the ultimate weapon, the ultimate game-changer, that can defeat virtually all of the ugliness that we find ourselves knee-deep in. We just have to choose to do it.

So I’ll start: I’m grateful to be alive and a part of this amazing, beautiful creation of God’s. I’m grateful that I have two wonderful daughters. I’m grateful for the love of family and friends. I’m grateful that I have a good education, a reasonable measure of good health, a roof over my head, and food on the table. I’m grateful that I’m here in Louisville, and specifically here at Springdale. I’m grateful that I’m your pastor, that God drew us both  together; and that I’m not only your pastor, but that, at least to the extent it’s possible between pastors and parishioners, we’re friends. I’m grateful that I get to work every day with the remarkably gifted, talented, and caring staff here at the church. I’m very grateful for George, that God allowed us to find each other, and that we’re together now. And I’m grateful that you’ve welcomed and accepted him and made him a part of all of this as much as you have with me. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey of faith and life that we’re all on together. I’m grateful for all of this, and so much more.

So, if I never said all of that before, I have now. And now, I invite all of you to do the same. Decide, choose, commit, to sit down daily and take stock of what it is that you’re grateful for, large or small. And then, choose, commit, to finding some way, just as the leper in the gospel story did, to express that gratitude in your words and actions. Maybe it will take the form of making a batch of cookies for someone. Or fixing a storm door, or offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe it’s dropping someone a card, or finally getting around to a thank you note that you’ve been meaning to send out forever. Or maybe it will just be taking a moment to offer a simple, face-to-face thank you. Whatever it is, it will make you feel better, and it will make the person you offer it to feel better, and it will definitely please Christ every bit as much as the thank you he received on that road all those years ago.

Thanks be to God.