Posted in Sermons

“The Gifts of the Magi”: A Sermon for Epiphany 2020

This sermon preached January 5, 2020 at Seattle First Baptist Church

Matthew 2:1-12

Today we are celebrating Epiphany, the time when the wise ones from the East finished their journey and finally met the Christ child. These folks are important figures from all over the world, despite the fact that we don’t know how many of them there were or their names or what all they gave to Jesus. All we know for sure was that there were some special visitors from a far off-land and some gifts were given. This room for interpretation leaves exactly that…and so, of course,  every Christmas there are an abundance of cartoons depicting the wise men and their off-the-mark gift giving. There are many cartoons about the wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, and having that be nice, but then the wise women show up and have practical gifts like diapers, freezer casseroles, and milk pumping tips. Or pointing out that the wise women would have asked for directions and arrived on time and not made a pit stop with Herod in Jerusalem at all. 

But really, what was it like for the wise ones to show up with the wrong gift? The wise ones, you may remember, were powerful Zoroastrian astrologers, respected in society. They traveled a long way, probably from the area known as Persia, from what today would be known as Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia. And during their travels, they got a little sidetracked. No, let’s be honest, they got A LOT sidetracked. We can understand their train of thought, right? There is a new, important king on the block and we will go find him. Kings live in palaces. Palaces are in political centers. Jerusalem is a political center. Therefore, the king will be there. Oh, wise ones, why did you use the logic of human power arrangements rather than divine humility?

And find a king they did, as they met with Herod and inquired as to the location of the new king. And, as we discussed last week, Herod the Great was a ruthless ruler, and a cunning, manipulative politician. So we shouldn’t be that surprised when Herod, who was always insecure about his power and position, attempted to get the magi to do his legwork and find out more about this child. The magi agreed and left Jerusalem, and apparently somehow got back on track and went to Bethlehem. They found the house where the mother and child were, and entered. 

And something miraculous happened. They recognized Jesus. They recognized the importance of this child. And they knelt down, assumed a position of respect, and paid him “homage.” Some Bible translations make this clearer to modern readers by saying they “worshipped him.” 

Then comes the gift giving. So the expensive, extravagant gifts were given to a poor, unwed, teenage mother in a small town and her young child, who was more likely to chew on a brick of gold rather than know what it was for. These were not the right gifts for the situation. Perhaps that’s why they went astray toward Jerusalem. They had brought gifts fit for a king, for a wise ruler, for someone more like the Son of Herod than the Son of God: gold and frankincense and myrrh, sweet and expensive spices…surely the powerful in Jerusalem would have a use for these, would know what to do. 

But I wonder, if even though the wise ones had misread the situation, or made assumptions about what kind of king they would find, if they did have the right gifts with which to adore baby Jesus. 

The exact right gift was the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, because that’s what they had. The right gift was to spend time pursuing the feeling they had that something special, something important, something big had just happened in the birth of this child. The right gift was to put aside their power, their privilege, their status, and kneel down at the feet of a small child. The right gift was paying attention to dreams, recognizing the dire political situation and choosing the side of justice. The right gift was to humbly recognize one who would show the way towards living justly with his life, no matter what the powers that be demanded or expected.

My friend Al reminds me of these wise ones, someone not afraid to divest themselves of their privileged status in favor of honoring the way of justice.

If you were to visit Oberlin, Ohio on a Saturday around noon, you may see some kindly Midwestern folks sporting homemade cardboard signs fixed to yardsticks saying things like “Peace is possible” and “War is unjust.” The weekly Peace Vigil has been going on every Saturday since September 15, 2001, the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, when my dear pastors Mary and Steve Hammond from Peace Community Church of Oberlin gathered with some congregants to demonstrate against escalating violence in the Middle East. Up until last June, you’d have seen a tall, gangly elderly man wearing a bright yellow raincoat or a “No Nukes” t-shirt holding a “No War with Iran” sign. That man was Al Carroll, a dear friend of mine and longtime peace activist, including involvement in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Al was a physicist, and during the Vietnam War he worked at the famous Brookhaven lab on Long Island, experimenting with small particles. During this time, there was a proposal for his lab to experiment with a process that would basically make nuclear weapons smaller and more accessible. Al and his colleagues protested this use of technology, and were ultimately successful. 

Due to his long career in physics and his close brush with nuclear power, Al spent most of his retired life continuing his love of learning by auditing classes at Oberlin College, my alma mater. Though I met Al while attending Peace Community Church of Oberlin, I also took a few classes alongside this dear man about 60 years my senior. One of these classes was a class on Islam, with the Professor Jafar Mahallati. 

Professor Mahallati was Iranian, from the historically significant city of Shiraz, the ancient hometown of the mystic poet Hafiz. During the 1980s, he had served as an ambassador to the UN and was instrumental in brokering the peace deal that ended the Iran-Iraq war. Following this, he had returned to one of his great loves, teaching, and wound up at Oberlin in the Religion and Language departments. Among the assignments for this class was meeting Professor Mahallati for tea and talking about peacebuilding, or perhaps memorizing a verse like this for recitation in front of the class:

A Great Need by Hafiz

Out

Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

 

Al Carroll and Professor Mahallati became good friends. Out of the tense situation post-9-11, Al had decided he needed to learn more about Islam and peacemaking in different religious traditions and pursued education in this area. The class I shared with Al was one of many he had taken with Jafar, and sometimes he would invite Jafar to the weekly Peace Vigil. 

For Al and for Jafar, friendship is key to peacebuilding. 

The honest, open encountering of the other; the willingness to see yourself in another’s situation; the compassion to witness how another human experiences the world and recognize that your wellbeing is bound up with theirs. Recognition is key to friendship. As Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you.” 

Perhaps this is what the wise ones discovered. They were seeking a king, and had only envisioned this king one way, in a way that would appreciate gold, frankincense, myrrh, fine clothes, whatever they had brought with them to honor him. But unbeknownst to them, that king was also seeking them: in encountering the child Jesus, their lives were changed. Like a former nuclear physicist shifting from using the gifts of his knowledge and curiosity to benefit war to lay down his gifts and humility in the work of peace building, setting himself against everything his career had been about, the magi divested themselves of the status given by Herod. They disobeyed Herod’s orders. They let dreams guide them on a path that would not lead to Herod’s murder of Jesus. They were not ashamed to humble themselves at the feet of a child, recognizing the way of Love in front of them, the way of Love that was seeking them all along.

Today, at this challenging time in history, I sadly say that I recognize a feeling that we are on the verge of war. And I think I would know what this feels like, since this country has been at war for over 67% of my life, and over 95% of my brother’s life (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/08/22/heres-how-much-of-your-life-the-u-s-has-been-at-war/). And since Thursdsay and the assassination of General Soleimani, I have seen Facebook and Twitter and news outlets sharing stories of more young people taking oaths to serve and protect, going off to basecamp and being deployed to Iraq. I have also seen news outlets jump at every bit of information, and I am reminded that war is a lucrative endeavor, of course not only for media, but especially for weapons manufacturers, arms dealers, security companies, fossil fuel companies, tech giants like those in our own backyard, and politicians who buy into the idea that supporting war guarantees re-election. There are voices crying out about “patriotism” and “support the troops” and “protecting America’s interests” and “safety and security,” voices that do not question why new recruits are mostly poor and working-class people under the age of twenty; not questioning why it is not supportive of those who have given their lives over to the military to protest war and keep them home in their communities. Honestly, figuring out to say this week was hard…until I talked with some of my fellow millennial pastor friends, who spoke truths like, “But aren’t we on the brink of war every Sunday?” This shouldn’t push us towards normalizing war into apathy, but to question why there is so much of it. 

In considering what Epiphany means today, what encountering the Christ child has to teach us here and now, I remember the lessons from Jafar Mahallati, and I turn to poetry, one of the greatest teachers of friendship, compassion and empathy, a great source of wisdom. In exploring Iranian poetry in particular, I ran across this quote from an article by a USAmerican poet regarding her experiences attending Persian poetry readings: “In the US, if a person is under stress, they are told to sit in a room and meditate. In [Persian] culture, they are told to read poetry.” 

From the poet Hafiz: 

I know the way you can get

When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,

Your sweet muscles cramp.

Children become concerned

About a strange look that appears in your eyes

Which even begins to worry your own mirror

And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness

And call an important conference in a tall tree.

They decide which secret code to chant

To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness

That arrays itself against the world

And throws sharp stones and spears into

The innocent

And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get

If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart

Every sentence your friends and teachers say,

Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale

Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure

From every angle in your darkness

The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

Trusted.

I know the way you can get

If you have not had a drink from Love’s

Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of

The vital need

To keep remembering God,

So you will come to know and see Him

As being so Playful

And Wanting,

Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:

Bring your cup near me.

For all I care about

Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about

Is giving Love!

(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

Perhaps we don’t have the right gifts, the relevant gifts, the gifts that will make all the difference. But look at what we do have: The gifts of recognizing ourselves in others. The gifts of poetry. The gifts of giving to those in need. The gifts of humbling ourselves in favor of encountering a different way of being, a new way of loving justly. These are the gifts of the magi. 

May it ever be so. 

 

artwork by He Qi. 

Posted in Sermons

Made You Look: A Sermon on Acts 1:1-11

What’s that? That, over there. Do you see it? Made you look.

What’s that? That, right here. Do you see it? Do you see each other? Made you look.

Y’all, today is a special day. Today we are honoring the graduates who are a part of Glendale Baptist Church. And what better Scripture for this momentous transition in our beloved ones’ lives, what better text for a day in which we honor the process of learning and the gaining of knowledge, than the Ascension, a story about transition…and about those left behind.

Not left behind in a bad sense, just, not progressing to the same stage. You see, Jesus was a teacher. He was not very didactic, in a “tell-it-from-the-front-of-the-classroom” sort of way, but he was a “show and tell” teacher. He made his disciples work for their learning. Jesus, however nice and friendly as we imagine him, was a hard teacher. Sometimes those he taught were confused–just ask Peter. Sometimes those he taught walked away sorrowfully, not understanding what he was trying to tell them–just ask the rich man. Sometimes those he taught got a different lesson than they were hoping for–just ask the Samaritan woman at the well, or the centurion, or Bartimaeus. Jesus often taught in parables. They might seem simple, but often were a lot more complicated once you dove into them. Parables were not a short memory verse, which you’d get a sticker for in Sunday school; parables became part of you. They made your work for your lesson. Sometimes they worked on you, entering your heart and taking over your mind as you would mull over and over what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” Jesus the teacher shared the knowledge that was needed to get to the next stage of life…but he did not accompany his disciples there. They had to go on their own.

And so on this day, as we honor how those among us participate in the learning process, it is appropriate that we accompany the disciples as they gaze up into the sky, slightly perplexed by Jesus’ last words to them, not quite sure what was going on. That’s what transitions do to us. They shake us up, they make us think, they leave us cautionary and wary and wondering if what we see is real, if what we know is something we can count on. They leave us looking around, trying to learn how to make this place, this “right-now” our home.

Our text for today, at the beginning of the book of Acts, takes place shortly after the resurrection. Church, we are still in the time of Easter–isn’t that wonderful? We are still basking in the afterglow of getting up-close-and-personal with the nitty-gritty moments that surround the death of a loved one as we learn that love is a far stronger and surer power than that of the realm of death. In the season of Easter, we learn about what Jesus did post-resurrection and how the early church figured out their purpose in the absence of Jesus. See, the transition that occurs on this special day is that of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. He teaches and the disciples listen and then Jesus is taken up into heaven, covered by a cloud. After the book of Luke ends with this event, the book of Acts picks up where the author left off in the story, recording that the disciples “were staring towards heaven.” Can you imagine them? The disciples who had given days, months, years of their lives to following Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea and even into places like Samaria; these disciples who had followed Jesus through his arrest, trial, violent death, time in the grave and revelation of his resurrection; these disciples who had been in the Upper Room when he appeared to them and let them touch his hands and side so recently pierced by crucifying nails; these disciples, who we might expect to have it all figured out, are staring up into heaven…lost. Confused. Waiting. And I imagine that Jesus, as he is taken upward on the same path as Elijah, chuckles, “Made you look.”

fugel ascension of christ
Christi Himmelfahrt by Gebhard Fugel c. 1893

What happens next is instructive. While they are all gazing up, not sure quite what is going on, not sure what had just happened to them–and graduates, on commencement you might find yourselves feeling similarly–someone says to them, “Hey! You! Why are you all standing here, willy nilly? I’ll tell you what’s really going on. You already know what you need to do. You already know what Jesus taught you.”

The author of the book of Acts writes that before Jesus was taken up into heaven, Jesus instructed them to wait for the Holy Spirit, to be attentive to how the Spirit of God would move among them, to “be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” That is the calling for these disciples. To be witnesses. And, perhaps because we have heard this story before, or perhaps because we see certain similarities with the way the disciples received Jesus’ teachings (with confusion, shock, frustration and incomprehension), it takes a moment for them to figure out the gravity, and grace, of this call.

Dr. John Holbert, a Biblical scholar who writes a blog for Patheos.com writes,

“But do they, or we, head off to fulfill the command? Hardly! We are too enamored of the ascending Jesus, our necks strained as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out “I love you.” Suddenly, two men “stood near them.” Just as in the gospel where two men attempt to explain to the women who are looking for Jesus’ dead body that they are looking in the wrong place, since living beings are not to be found in graveyards, so now two men tell the stiff-necked (in more ways than one!) apostles that their eyes are not looking in the right place. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go,’ and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you need ask no further questions about when, they imply. “When” is simply not the right question to ask. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a speculator than a witness. Speculators write books of calculations, hold seminars that attract thousands, rake in untold piles of loot, while prognosticating a certain time for Jesus’ return. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As Acts 1 makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses.”

Oh, the spectators and speculators and witnesses. All of these words might seem so closely linked, and yet carry such different meanings when held up to the lamp. I’m gonna guess that some of us are joining the disciples in the “not-getting-it” part of this linguistics lesson. Let’s see if we can parse these out.

Now, spectators are fun! They sit on the sidelines, or sometimes even stand, waving their arms as the “wave” comes around and thrusting their foam finger in the air and cheering. They show up, they are present in the place, together with all the rest. They mostly pay attention–between chowing their hot dogs and Dippin’ Dots, that is. They look. They watch the action happening before them, playing out on a field, a pitch, a rink or a screen. But no matter what they do, they don’t really have a bearing on the action. Nothing the spectator does will change the score, altar the character of the players, or make that perfect pitch, hit, kick or drive. Spectators are present, but they are not engaged.

Witnesses, however, are not just here for the fun. Like the spectator, they are present and they look at the action. But they also see what is really going on. Witnesses feel a sense of responsibility for the action taking place. Witnesses are engaged. They understand the interconnectedness of all life. They understand how our humanity is all bound up together, our love is all bound up together, our liberation is all bound up together. These are no passive bystanders that turn and look and move on. No, these are people who feel duty-bound to truly see what life has to offer them in that moment. These are people who feel that nudge from the Spirit saying, “You’ve gotta be here for this.” And then they show up.

And yes, I know that some of you, who use sports analogies way better than I, would argue that you are not just a spectator, but you are truly a die-hard witness to Vandy baseball or Preds hockey or UT football…or anyone else, for that matter. But, sorry to break it to you, none of us here in this sanctuary is qualified to gain the winning touchdown or goal. So you’re stuck with me and my very limited sport knowledge, as I try to express to you that witnesses feel some kind of solidarity with those with whom the action is taking place, while the spectators can go on with their lives, unchanged.

And this is part of the role of the church: to be witnesses. Those raised in more conservative backgrounds might associate the practice of evangelism with the idea of “being a witness for the Lord.” While we acknowledge that often traditional evangelism, the business of “saving souls” and spreading the gospel of Jesus can be problematic in its theology, spreading paternalism and capitalism and a narrow vision of morality, there may yet be something to the practice of being a witness. We witness in many different dimensions. The first dimension occurs as we witness to the life of Jesus Christ, the gospel that proclaims that death does not have the final answer, the gospel that proclaims love continues beyond all evil, all hatred, all violence. Jesus’ miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection shows us this. These life stages are miraculous not only because of the fact of their occurrence, but because of their revelation that our God is a god who is WITH US. In all of these moments of growth and life, God calls to us, “Made you look.”

The second dimension is that we witness to the gospel, the “good news” that Jesus himself preached in Luke chapter 4:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

  because he has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

  and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

These words are yet another “made you look” arising from our text today, as we look alongside Jesus towards the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and bring good news to them, good news to ourselves, through our thoughts, words and deeds.

The third dimension is that we witness to the events going on around us, sharing with our Loving God special concern for those who are marginalized by the powers and principalities of this world. Though we are not always good at it, we must do our best to see, truly see and understand, the plight of “the least of these,” those who have been made to be “the least of these” by virtue of their identities and expressions in the world. We must do this for those suffering from natural disasters, displaced by war and greed, marginalized because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, economic class and belief system. As Dean Emilie Townes reminded the Divinity School at Vanderbilt during our commencement worship service on Friday morning, we must be present to the grief of the world. Our task is to witness: to see and empathize and move forward being altered. Witnesses do not leave unscathed as spectators do. They leave changed. Made you look.

The fourth dimension is that we witness to each other’s lives. As all of the graduates among us can profess, we have witnessed to this most holy work of Glendale Baptist Church. We have even participated in it. Some have grown up here, people have watched you tread these floors as a toddler and elementary school child and tween and teen and now delightful young people who yet have still not glimpsed the true power of your being and your actions in this world. Some have grown up here, and I include myself in that, learning how to live and move and breathe in the midst of this Spirit that surrounds us and enfleshes us and creates community in us.

And you, dearest Glendale, have witnessed our growth. You have shouldered our burdens and we have shouldered yours. You have born responsibility for our wellbeing and we have born responsibility for yours. You have been moved to conversation and dialogue and action by our relationship, and we have been moved to conversation and dialogue and action by your relationship! I would like to invite you now to share briefly how you have witnessed and been witnessed to as a part of the life of this community.

[Pause for sharing]

As we discover in our moments of reflection and sharing, witnessing is not a passive activity. Witnesses incur a responsibility. As we enter the role of the witness, we are in some way acting upon that moment. Something in the metaphysical cosmic character of a moment is changed by virtue of our presence. This is not said so that we will inflate our own self-importance, but so that we might notice that we make a difference in this world. When we witness something, we we are also allowing it to act upon us. Being truly seen and known is a powerful thing. How many of us here, when finding ourselves overcome with emotion, are relieved in some way when that friend listens to us in just the way we need? When a loved one notices what’s on our hearts without us having to utter it aloud? When a stranger offers a simple gesture of kindness and it is somehow it hits the spot? What we learn from these random encounters, is that others witness to our lives. That our lives matter, how we show up for each other matters: to our families, friends, our church, our community, our world. A life spent learning how to follow Jesus, learning how to live in this world espousing an ethic grounded in love and justice and mercy and grace, is worth pursuing. This kind of life matters, and it makes you look. At yourself. At others. At the world. Toward the future.

So church, I’m not a heavenly visitor dressed in white talking to the early church of disciples as you stare into heaven. But I echo the question asked in the Scripture text today: “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” We know what Jesus has called us to do. Look around at each other. Explore this precious, temporal world with your compassionate heart. Consider everything from the lilies to the least of these. Are you a spectator or a witness?

What’s that? Over there? Can you see what I see? Made you look.

Now: act.

 

This sermon originally preached on May 13, 2018 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.