For The Someday Book

Archive for January 2011

Highlighted passage: Micah 6:1-8

(My church is in the heart of a major capital campaign right now, so that experience definitely colors my reflections on this week’s text. So did my reading of Amy Oden’s commentary at, which offered helpful context information and many ideas that influenced this writing.)

Usually, we see the famous words of Micah 6:8 as a program for our living. Faithfulness to God is doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. However, when paired with the earlier verses about making an offering, I realized that this scripture is not just a guide to living, it is a guide to giving. And more than just a guide, it is a description of the process I am seeing right now in my life and the lives of so many others in our church during this capital campaign. It’s a process of struggling with what God requires of you.

The anthem “Offertory” by John Ness Beck portrays this tension and resolution in music. Our choir will be singing the anthem on Sunday immediately preceding my sermon, but you can catch it on Youtube here:

These verses in Micah are a back-and-forth, conflicted conversation between God and the people.

God summons all of creation to bear witness to the argument, even to arbitrate between the sides. The mountains, the hills, the very foundations of the earth—God calls down all of creation to judge in this argument with humanity.

You would anticipate that, after God has summoned these arbiters, God would launch a polemic against humanity and all our misdeeds, naming our sins and condemning us for our unrighteousness. After all, that’s what any good lawyer would do. But God is not a lawyer.

God is a mother. God does not yell at the people, condemn them, or recite the case against the people. God applies guilt to the people: “After all I’ve done to you, you treat me like this? What have I done to you, except love you, care for you, protect you? Who brought you up out of slavery in Egypt? Who provided leadership for you in Moses, Miriam and Aaron? Who delivered you into the promised land? What did I do to deserve this? After I’ve done all this for you and more, you still disobey me?”

Like any good child in this classic argument, the people reply, “What do you want from me? Nothing I do is ever good enough for you. What kind of offering, what kind of sacrifice could ever repay you for everything you have done? Why do you hold it over my head like that? Do you want me to give you thousands of rams? 10,000 rivers of oil? Should I sacrifice my firstborn child for you, my own blood? Would that make you happy? What will be good enough to get out of this debt I owe you? What?”

Do you all recognize this fight? Have you had it with your parents, your children?

What does your mother answer, when you reach that point in the argument? What does she want from you? She does not want to be paid back for all that she has given and sacrificed for you, for the work of bringing you into this world and raising you and keeping you safe. That is not what she wants at all, is it?

“I want you to love me, listen to me, walk with me, and do the right thing.” That’s what your mother would say, right? Well, that’s what God says. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God. Love me. Listen to me. Walk with me. And do the right thing.

I think many of us, when we start to think about our giving to God through the church, start to have this same argument with God. We look around us at the mountains and the hills, the foundations of the earth, and we realize that everything, including our life, belongs to God. When we spend time contemplating God’s goodness to us, we realize all the ways God has loved, protected, nurtured, and delivered us. When we hear the call to give, when we hear God, in turn, making demands on us, we start to think that God wants us to pay it all back somehow. We get anxious and overwhelmed, because we know that if we had to pay it back, it would take everything. We get all worked up and agitated about our ability to match God’s sacrifice with our own. What do you want from me, God? What could possibly be good enough to pay you back for everything you’ve done for me? Do you want me to give up everything? Do you want me to sacrifice every indulgence, every happiness, out of guilt for what I owe you? What do you require from me, God?

But God does not want to be repaid for God’s sacrifice, any more than our mothers do. But, for the people in Micah and for us today, God wants to place a demand on our life, a call for us to give and sacrifice in return.

“I have told you already what is good. What do I require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” When it comes to our giving, God does not want us to hurt ourselves, to unduly suffer, to beat ourselves up and prostrate ourselves in abject poverty. God wants what our mothers want—our true love and obedience, dedication and respect. God wants us to listen, and do the right thing. To do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

God does not ask if our gift is sacrificial enough, if it is painful enough—God simply asks if it is just, if it is fair enough. Is our gift a fair measure, an equal sacrifice? God does not ask if our gift is large enough, God asks if our gift is made in the right spirit. Do we love kindness and generosity, or do we loathe it? God does not ask if our gift is faithful enough. God only asks if our gift puts us closer to walking humbly with our Savior. What is God asking, requiring of you? To do justice–that your money and resources, which all belong to God anyway, are properly used and aligned with the justice of God’s purposes. To love kindness—that you have learned not just to do acts of kindness and generosity, but to love and welcome the opportunity to be generous and kind. And to walk humbly with your God—to walk the path of love and obedience, so that your footsteps match up with God’s path.

Because God knows what our mothers know—that doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God will not only make us good, compassionate, loving people—it will bring our souls to peace and even joy.

This post could also be titled, “Things They Don’t Teach You in Seminary,” or “What Ministers Really Do.”

A saddle, similar to the one we used.

We had a boiler pipe leak on Sunday at church. When I arrived first thing, steam was gushing out everywhere and there was a giant puddle of water on the floor. I turned off the boiler, and thankfully the building was warm enough to get us through worship. After the service, a valiant church member applied a device called a “saddle” to cover the hole, so that we could have heat again. I assisted with light mopping, tool-fetching and clean-up duties.

The saddle fixed the hole 100%. However, it did nothing to fix the second hole we discovered three feet farther down the pipe. We did not have another saddle on hand to apply. The device was not available at retail stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, so we shut the boiler off and waited until Plumber’s Supply opened the next morning.

Monday morning, I dropped my son off at school, and got a call from the church secretary. “It’s cold in here!” she said. I got on the phone, and a second valiant church member was available to  install the second saddle, with technical support available by phone from the first. Since Plumber’s Supply was not too far from my son’s school, it was only natural for me to run that errand.

Which one of these things does not belong?

So, at 9:03 a.m., I pulled my little Kia up in front of Plumber’s Supply, amid a long line of professional plumbers’ work trucks. I immediately realized I was way out of my league. That realization grew deeper when I stepped out onto the sidewalk and realized that the block-long building had four different entrances, each one for a different department. All I knew was that I needed a 2″ saddle for a boiler pipe—and there was no door that said that.

I picked the closest one, and was directed down the warehouse hall to the department I needed. Since it was Monday morning, the place was busy, with several sales representatives seated behind desks and half-a-dozen contractors waiting around to order supplies. I joined the crowd standing around waiting, looking and feeling completely out of place. They were dressed for a normal day’s work—jeans, jackets, boots, tool belts. I was also dressed for a normal day’s work—skirt, blouse, pumps, scarf.

Everyone treated me with the utmost kindness, and guided me through the order, pick-up, cashier process. I emerged 20 minutes later having paid a mere $27 for the 2″ saddle that would enable us to restore heat to the church, and hopefully keep our old boiler running for the rest of the season. (We are in the midst of a capital campaign to replace it by next winter.)

In the life of a solo pastor of a small church, there is no “normal day’s work.” This was my first time at a supply store for professional plumbers, but it was far from the first time my work for the church had taken me to different, unusual places that most people do not get to see. Every day is different, and you never know what to expect. There will be days that involve fixing boilers or repairing copy machines or fighting floods in the basement. There will also be days when you make a pastoral call at the bar of the American Legion, or hold a burial service for someone’s beloved cat, or make homemade sausage, or relearn papier-mache, or rent vans, or march in a parade, or research labor laws, or attend a fancy fundraising dinner with a celebrity speaker. It’s all in a day’s work.

And that’s what makes ministry so grand. Especially since there are valiant church members—who also are not plumbers or boiler technicians—engaged in the mutual effort to keep God’s church up and running, serving the community and spreading the gospel in whatever ways possible.

Somebody Else’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Brundage, Plume Books, 2008, 342 pp.

At long last, after holidays and funerals and ministry galore, a chance to read! I picked up this book back in November from the clearance table, hoping for a little light diversion over the Thanksgiving weekend. I finally started it on MLK Day, and discovered it was a great choice.

Somebody Else’s Daughter has a great cast of multi-generational characters, centered on an elite prep school in the Berkshires. The middle-aged generation of characters is comprised of the headmaster and his wife, a teacher, and several wealthy parents. The student generation of characters are the daughter of the headmaster, a local prostitute, the child of a single mother who moved to the school after a very different life, and the adopted daughter of two wealthy parents, who is also the birth daughter of the teacher. Everyone in the book has a past full of secrets, and the story uncovers them one by one.

Brundage wove this story together in a beautiful way. The story draws you in like a spider in a web. I had no idea where it was going, what the plot was going to be, but it didn’t matter. I was captivated by each of the characters and by Brundage’s simple yet exquisite writing. Each chapter, each scene stood on its own,  yet there was mystery after mystery unfolding. As it rolled along, I started to pick up clues about upcoming plot twists, but they were subtle and indirect. Then, almost suddenly, I looked up to find myself in the middle of a mystery and a thriller for the final hundred pages or so.

The experience of reading this novel reminded me of riding the log flume. Most of the ride is a gentle, rolling trip through the trees and around some corners. Then, you enter the old wooden sawmill, see the giant spinning blade and your heart starts to beat a little faster. At the end, you go crashing down below the blade, now the incline at top speed into a big splash, laughing with delight. Somebody Else’s Daughter was a great ride, and just the escape reading I needed.

The two most discussed and posted parenting articles among my Facebook friends this week have been Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal,  and Mayim Bialik’s (aka “Blossom“) introduction to Attachment Parenting for the Today Show blog.

Amy Chua with her daughters. (Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien, Wall Street Journal)

Chua’s article has unleashed a firestorm of angry and wounded responses, calling her whole approach to parenting abusive and psychologically damaging. She basically argues that the role of a parent is to push their child toward perfection, even if it means hounding, fighting, resisting the child’s own desires, even to extremes. In her understanding, this enables the child to achieve greatness. Labeling herself a “tiger mom,” she believes that the child’s ego is resilient and strong, and that parental aggressiveness builds the child’s confidence that they can do the impossible. Her article analyzes the differences between what she labels as “Chinese” and “Western” parenting, and argues why her hard-nosed style is better. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder about the timing of this article, which coincides with the state visit by China’s President Hu and elaborate news coverage of economic ties and cultural dissonances between the U.S. and China.)

Mayim Bialik (Photo by Denise Herrick Borchert, The Today Show)

Mayim Bialik’s article talks more about the “what” than the “why,” but the case for attachment parenting is well known. Bialik and other attached parents argue the opposite of Chua: that the role of a parent is to be responsive to a child’s needs, to listen and nurture the whims and desires of the child, so that they might gain confidence in themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment. Bialik describes a constellation of parenting decisions usually labeled “attachment parenting,” such as extended nursing, co-sleeping, babywearing and gentle discipline. Following the lead of Dr. Sears, attachment parenting advocates believe that what children need most is unconditional love, emotional security and sensitive attention in order to develop confidence and security in their own identities.

Among my friends, Chua’s article has mostly received expressions of horror, outrage and scorn.  Bialik’s article has been lauded as a validation of “crunchy-granola” attachment parenting values from the mainstream media. (After all, it doesn’t get much more mainstream media than the Today Show.) In the interest of full disclosure, I also objected to many of the ideas in Chua’s article, and I support many of the ideas in Bialik’s article. Although we did not/do not follow all of the attachment parenting practices, I have a strong leaning in that direction.

What strikes me as far more interesting, however, are the striking similarities between the two articles. While the daily parenting styles seem completely opposed to one another, there are some fundamental identity issues and assumptions that they both share. First, both mothers are smart, well-educated and financially secure. Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, and Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and an ongoing acting career. Second, both mothers are passionately invested in the work of parenting. They are thoughtful and intentional about their relationships with their children. Third, they both clearly love their children and want what’s best for them, even if they have very different views of “what’s best.”

Most compelling, they share a fundamental assumption about raising children. Both approaches—the Tiger Mom and the Attached Parent—seem to believe that the child cannot thrive without constant parental attention.  Both perceive the child as a fragile creature, likely to collapse without constant intervention. The fears themselves are different: Tiger Moms fear laziness, disorganization, and lack of achievement; Attached Parents fear loss of self-esteem and a broken ego unable to form relationships. The remedies and interventions are also different: Tiger Moms believe in the power of constant nagging and force; Attached Parents believe in the power of constant reassurance and sensitivity. But, fundamentally, they both seem to work on the premise that children are fragile and incapable of growing into normal, healthy, successful adults (however you define that) without intense attention from their parents (whether direct focus or in the creation of a certain environment). I would also infer that they both share a huge weight of anxiety and responsibility over their children’s development, whether parent-led or child-led.

Observing the connection between the two articles made me realize something about my own style of parenting. Like both Chua and Bialik, I am smart, well-educated and financially secure (for the most part, although far below their income brackets). I am thoughtful and intentional in my parenting, even taking time to write about it here. I obviously love my son and want what’s best for him. I have experienced plenty of fear and anxiety over whether or not I am doing the right things as his mother. I have often felt guilty for not being more “attached,” more intense and attentive in my interactions with B. I have even occasionally felt guilty for not pushing him harder to try new things or attempt things that are difficult.

The difference is: I get over those feelings pretty quickly because I just don’t believe, like they seem to, that B is fundamentally fragile, and that the intensity of my attention (strict or sensitive) will make or break his security and success into adulthood. Part of the reason I was never very good at attached parenting is because I valued B’s independence (and my own) too much to offer him constant attention, even as an infant. Like Chua, I believe that children are strong and resilient and not easily crushed. However, like Bialik, I believe that listening responding to my child’s needs is essential to good parenting, and I could never ignore or belittle his own desires and expressed needs. We tend to strike somewhere in between–it’s what works for our family.

For B, even the sky's no limit. (Photo by revjmk)

Most importantly, I just believe that all B really needs is to know that he is loved, that we will provide for him as best as we are able, that there are clear boundaries for behavior and safety, and that we trust him with the rest. If we offer him those things, he will be alright. D.H. Lawrence once said there were three rules for raising children: “First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone.” While that’s obviously a bit extreme, I think there is some wisdom there, especially for over-anxious, over-educated, over-intentional parents like Bialik, Chua and me. I think, in the end, children need both less coddling and less prodding, less protection and less pushing than either hard core Tiger Moms or committed Attached Parents are ready to offer.

It makes me suspicious that those two styles of parenting and most others are more about our needs than about our children’s. Like our need to believe we can protect our children from all hurt and harm. Or our need to believe that our efforts can somehow create ideal children–whether that ideal is success, brilliance, happiness, creativity, freedom or anything else.  Or our need to control our lives, and by extension our children’s, to ward off fear and anxiety about the unknown. Or our need to heal the wounds of our own childhood. Or our need to prove our worth through the accomplishments of our children. Or any other variety of normal adult longings and anxieties.

But children are people too. From an early age, they show their own preferences and choices, their own fears and desires, and their own ways of being in the world. They will all grow up to make their own mistakes and carry their own wounds, including some from their parents, no matter what we do. We love them, listen to them, be there for them, try to do what we think is best for them, pray we are right about what is best for them, and trust they will be O.K. in the end. Amazingly, most of them are.

Highlighted Passage: Matthew 4:12-23

The Calling of the Apostles, Mosaic, San Marco, Santa Maria Assunta in Venice

Put down your nets—you’re after the wrong fish.

When Jesus approached those would-be disciples on the shores of the Galilee, they were doing what they had done every day, probably since they were young boys—climb into boats, row out into the Sea of Galilee, cast out nets to catch fish, haul in the nets, sort the catch, cast the nets out again, haul in again, sort again. All day long. At the end of the day, they rowed back to shore, and mended the nets for the next day’s work. Cast, haul, sort, row, mend. One day after another, one net after another.

Until the day Jesus arrives. “Repent,” was his message. Turn around. You’re going the wrong direction with your life. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” The glory of heaven is right here all around you, next to you, and you are busy with nets. Casting, hauling, sorting, mending—you’re so focused on the nets that you’re missing the presence of heaven in your midst. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Put down the nets—you’re after the wrong fish. Come with me, and I’ll show you the kingdom of heaven. Come with me, and I’ll teach you what you really should be fishing for. Then you can show others.

I think we have a lot in common with these fisherfolk—Peter, Andrew, James, John. They had ordinary, familiar names. We all know our fair share of Peters, Johns, Jameses and Andrews. They work ordinary working people, just like us. Every day, they went out to catch fish. Some of the fish went home to feed their families, the rest to the market, sold to pay taxes and rent and buy clothing and medicine and anything else their families needed. The next day, the same thing. Work – eat – sleep –work – eat – sleep – work – eat – sleep.

Image by © Dave G. Houser/Corbis

How many of us live that kind of a life? We work hard every day, at the computer, on the assembly line, answering the phone, solving problems, building with our hands, tending to needs, managing papers. That work gives us the money we need to provide for our family—and so we spend it, to feed our families, pay taxes, pay the mortgage, buy clothing, medicine and anything else our family needs. Unlike those fisherfolk, most of us are blessed enough to have some left to buy televisions and computers, music and movies, trips to the mall and evenings out. But our lives are on the same cycle. Work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep. “Repent,” says Jesus. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And if you don’t put down those nets, stop the cycle, get beyond working/eating/sleeping/consuming, you’re going to miss it.

“Repent, and follow me.” Repent has a negative connotation of absolute depravity, similar to idea in 12-step groups about “hitting rock bottom” so that you can turn your life around. In reality, though, repentance does not require a rock-bottom moment, a 180-degree change-of-life. To repent is simply to feel regret at the direction of your life. It’s about breaking the cycle, correcting the course, deciding to make a change—whether it’s 180-degrees or 18. It’s about recognizing when you’ve been following the wrong pursuit, that your life is not headed in the right direction, that you are so busy casting, hauling, mending, sorting—so busy working, eating, consuming—that you have fallen into a life without wonder and purpose and beauty, lost the sense that the kingdom of heaven is near, and that we might glimpse it. Repent and follow me—put down the nets, you’re after the wrong fish.

Don’t we all, like those ordinary disciples, want more than working and consuming? That’s what Jesus offers. Follow me, and you’ll discover that heaven isn’t as far away as you think. It’s right here at hand. (For a great, fun explanation of how heaven is right at hand, check out the song “The Gospel Story” from Butterflyfish.) And if you stop following the cycle and start following me, you’ll have glimpse heaven around you all the time. You’ll start to see that God has more in mind for you than work and nets. You’ll stop fretting about the next day’s catch, the next day’s food, the next day’s mending. You’ll find the peace that passes all understanding, the confidence of God’s love and care for you, the light of hope in all things.

You and me together, says Jesus, we can show all those people trapped in their own nets of working, eating, consuming, together we can show them that there’s more for them, for all of us. There are people everywhere living in darkness, and we can show them the light—the light of heaven, all around them, beckoning them to live in love, to build peace and justice, to practice kindness and generosity. We can capture their hearts and together bring healing and good news to them all. Put down your nets, and follow me.

I am just downright irritable this morning. And I hate being this way.

Normally, I am a very chipper person. So much so that I am often accused of being annoying, pollyanna-ish and overly optimistic. But occasionally–like today–I am just downright grumpy.

And I don’t like it. Or much of anything else at the moment.

What frustrates me most at times like this is that I know exactly why I’m so irritated, yet I still find myself in the same position.

I am in such an ornery mood because I am stressed out about the sermon for tomorrow (notice that no sermon sapling ever got posted this week). I am nervous about the sermon tomorrow because I haven’t spent enough time this week preparing for it. I haven’t spent enough time preparing for the sermon because I have been overwhelmed with other pressing commitments at the church. Because I have been overwhelmed, I have not had any time to decompress or relax or take time for myself this week, except in desperation when I watch some bad TV or go to bed early. Because I have not had (or made) the time to relax, I can’t clear my head well enough to concentrate on the sermon. So I get more and more nervous about the sermon, more and more frustrated at all the distractions, more and more irritated, and more and more anxious. It’s a cycle of escalation.

This is a bad situation. I don’t let myself get in this position very often, but sometimes it just sneaks up on me.

The only cure, I have found, is to take the time to relax. The sermon won’t come to me in such a mood. No one wants to hear a sermon written by an irritable preacher—there is much griping and little good news in one of those. I have lots of ideas of what to say this week, and they will come together if I can just claim the space to let the Spirit in.

I have learned, after nearly 10 years of preaching, that the best thing that an irritable preacher can do is absolutely nothing related to the sermon. Instead, she should do something that helps her reclaim a sense of space and a sense of God’s presence. For me, it usually works to undertake something I wanted to do–for myself or even for church–that I didn’t have time to do during the week. Somehow that makes me feel like I have reclaimed the speed of my life and put things back into balance. This morning, I cleaned the kitchen and posted this blog entry. It may not be a sermon sapling, but I feel better for having written something at all this week.

By the time I hit the “publish” button, my mood will have already improved greatly. Especially since it means sharing that funny picture of a grumpy baby. I trust God’s forgiving grace will be with me, and with any other preachers who stumble across this entry when they are too irritated to write their own sermons.

This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.

As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.

In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.

I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.

During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.

I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 42:1-9

This passage in Isaiah conjures for me an iconic image from Disney’s The Lion King. Even if you’ve never seen it, you probably know this image. It’s a cliff, jutting out high up over the savannah, that the lions visit to look out over their entire kingdom. The movie features a young lion, Simba, from his birth to young adulthood, as he grows into his role as king of the jungle.  At the Simba’s birth, the animals come from miles around to gather at the foot of the cliff, waiting to greet the new baby king. As they come, they are singing about “The Circle of Life.”

It’s an image of baptism, really–this lion cub is anointed, on the forehead, as a symbol of his importance, his mission, his place in the world. He is going to be king.

By our baptism, we are marked as Christians–and we are anointed by the community of Christ, given a place and a purpose and a mission in this life. We are children of God, loved by God. Our purpose is to serve God and help God’s work in the world. We are not kings, but we are just as important–our lives and what we do with them matters in God’s kingdom.

Later in the movie, Simba’s father takes him back to that same cliff to teach him about being King of the Jungle. He lays out for Simba the power and beauty and extent of their kingdom at sunrise, describing it as everything the light touches. He tells him of the honor and responsibility of being king, to serve and oversee and take on the burden of all the creatures in their realm. He also tells him that the reign of a king is like the rising and setting of the sun–it comes and it goes, one day rolls into another.

This is the scene I imagine happening in Isaiah.

In this scripture, I imagine God taking us by the hand, leading us to a bluff looking out across our community. God reminds us of our baptism–our place, our purpose, our mission. God points out to us that we have been given this land and all the creatures in it. We are blessed by the abundance, and we are responsible for making God known in this place. “I have made you a light to the nations,” God says to us. I need you, God says, to shine out in this place, to make my love known here, to build justice and mercy and healing. You are my servant in this place. I need you to be light in the darkness, friend to the lonely, food to the hungry, hope to those who despair, love to those who have none.

I also imagine our reaction to that. “Who, me? Us? We’re just a little church on a little corner. We’re just ordinary people, no special faith, no miraculous healing. Just working folk trying to do the right thing for our families and our communities. We’re not good enough, faithful enough, capable enough, wealthy enough to do this thing you ask of us.”

God responds with a reassurance, and a challenge.

The reassurance: “See, the former things have come to pass.”

In other words, God says, look at all the promises I made to you that have already come true.

Do you think you are the first one to stand on this precipice? Your mothers and your fathers, your grandmothers and grandfathers—they have stood where you are now. I held them by the hand as they looked out over this gift and responsibility. They started this church. They built this building. They gave of themselves, their lives and their wealth, to make my light shine in this community. Like you, they believed they couldn’t do it. They thought they were not enough to accomplish what I asked of them. But I stood here, holding their hands, and promised them that together we could do it. And look out over this community—together we did. You are here today because my promises to them were true. I have kept my promises to them, and I will keep my promises to you.

And then comes the challenge: “New things I now declare. Before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

I have a new work to do in this generation, says God. I still need you to be light in the darkness, hope in the face of despair. Let me tell you what new things I want to do—because I am going to need your help to do them. Just as the former things have come to pass, I will make this thing come to pass as well. But I need your help. Just as my promises came true through the service and sacrifice of previous generations, I want to make my promises come true in you, too.

The Circle of Life that we God-followers participate in is a circle of promise after promise. God’s promise is fulfilled in generation after generation. We stand on the former things that have come to pass, the promises that God has fulfilled through previous generations. God takes us by the hand and asks us to help make new promises come true in our generation, for the future. We stand on the precipice, our hand in God’s hand, a light to our community, trusting in the promises of God.

The question is, will you let God’s promise come true in you?

Again because this post didn’t happen until late in the week, this is closer to my final manuscript for the sermon than a sermon sapling. Hopefully all will be back on track next week.

Highlighted Passage: Matthew 2:1-12

Wise Men by Viviana Vazquez Santiago

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of the three wise men? I’m guessing that the top three, in no particular order, are the camels, the star, and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are usually right there in our minds when we think of the wise men.

The travelers from the east described in Matthew’s Gospel, be they wise men or magi or astrologers, are linked forever in our minds with the gifts they brought to the Christ child. We even assume that there are three of them simply because they had three gifts. “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” When we think of the wise men, we think about them bearing gifts. We imagine their journey’s purpose to deliver those gifts to baby Jesus, as a sign of his spiritual importance beyond simply the Jewish community of Palestine.

Last year, B was playing with our nativity, and I wrote about some of the games he played. One involved arranging and rearranging the various figures, announcing the lineup each time: “Sheep, shepherd, mouse, mouse, treasure guy, Mary, camel, treasure guy, horse, cow, Baby Jesus, treasure guy.” Another involved the baby Jesus shouting to those treasure guys, “Hey wise men! Come bring me my presents!” Even a two-year-old (at the time) knows that the wise men are all about the presents.

But what if, originally, they weren’t?

By originally, I don’t mean before 2000 years of tradition got hold of them. I don’t even mean before Matthew crafted the story and added his own layers of interpretation. I mean really, really originally—like before they even set out on their journey to follow the star.

I read the scripture this year, and I noticed something different. And it made me wonder about that “originally.” What if, originally, the wise men didn’t set out to bring him presents? What if, originally, they just came to pay homage, and the presents were a spontaneous gesture?

Wise Men Journeying to Bethlehem by James Tissot

Look closely again at the scripture. Three times in this short passage from Matthew, we are told that the wise men come to Jesus to “pay him homage.” They tell King Herod they have traveled to “pay him homage.” King Herod responds asking for information so that he can “pay homage” too. Then, when they arrive, they “knelt down and paid him homage.” It was clearly what they came to do, the purpose of their journey and their visit.

Then comes the turn of phrase that caught my eye this time around. In the NRSV it says, “Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” I checked a bunch of other versions, and it’s pretty much the same. They came to pay him homage, and then they opened their treasure chests and started to offer him gifts. And they were their treasure chests that they opened–not gifts they had brought with them. So what if they originally just came to bow down and pay Christ homage, and the gifts they gave were not a part of the plan, but instead a generous response to their overwhelming encounter with him?

Adoration of the Magi by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Before I took this theory too far, I wanted to check it out. After all, maybe “paying homage” somehow implied that presents were involved, that giving honor meant giving gifts. So I did a little research into the Greek. The word that is translated as “pay homage” is the Greek proskuneo, (Strong’s G4352). It is usually translated as paying homage, bowing down or prostrating oneself. It comes from two other Greek words: pros, meaning toward or in the direction of, and kuneo, which is a derivative of the noun “dog,” and means to kiss, like a dog licking a master’s hand. A bit strange, perhaps, but proskuneo, paying homage, seems to say a lot about dog-like devotion, and little or nothing about giving gifts.

So Matthew’s word about “paying homage” does not seem to indicate that gifts were implied as part of that worship. And no one knows exactly what happened, or even if it happened, apart from Matthew’s account to us. I think that gives us the freedom to imagine it a little bit differently than we usually do, simply because there is no reason not to. So let’s think about this: what if the wise men weren’t originally treasure guys at all? What if they just came to worship, and they were so moved that they could not help but respond with generosity?

Hear Matthew’s words again:

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.

What if the wise men were more like curious seekers than gift-bearers? Imagine them filled with glee at finding the place where the star had led. They just knew it was going to be an important king, a person who would forever change the world, and they wanted to be the first to see. When they got inside that humble abode and discovered nothing more than a babe in arms, they were humbled and moved. They did more than pay obligatory homage—they knelt down before him, bowed and bent their hearts, and worshipped. And they were transformed by the experience.

The glory of his presence contrasted with the poverty of his circumstances. The compelling power of the stars joined to the humility of a single human life. They had encountered the living Christ, and it was like nothing they had ever experienced before. They saw themselves and their whole lives in a new way. They wanted the glory of their treasures to uplift the poverty of his circumstances. They wanted to join their single human lives to the compelling power of the stars. They wanted to respond.

Imagine them stepping out of that stable, or hut, or small family home, filled with awe of the glory of God. They see their camels, their belongings, their treasures awaiting them—and they know that nothing they own matters any more. Their hearts are moved, and they unlock their treasure chests to give it all away.

  • Out comes the gold they had brought, gold that paid for their travels, gold that was to be invested in goods to barter upon their return, gold that was supposed to secure them a safe passage home. Gold and all the things it would buy no longer mattered anymore. What mattered was doing anything they could to support the life of this child.
  • Out comes the frankincense they had purchased along the way and planned to take home with them, an indulgent gift for family back home and a sign of the wealth of their houses. Proving their wealth to the neighbors seemed ridiculous, after seeing the king born in a stable. They knew that the greatest gift they could bring their families was the story of this young child, nothing that could be bought.
  • Out comes the myrrh they had bought as funeral incense, so that when they and their families died, everyone would know their wealth. A strange gift for a baby, but the wise men knew they no longer needed an elaborate funeral to be remembered, that eternal life was not bought by the wealth of this world, but by sacrifices made toward the next one. Perhaps they even sensed, after their encounter with Herod and the warning dream, that this child’s death would be as important as his life.

Upon seeing Christ, they were overwhelmed with joy, and they opened their treasure chests, to present their wealth as a gift to the child.

Isn’t that what a true encounter with Christ is all about? Overwhelmed with the glory and generosity of our God, we bow down to worship, and we get up to give. Moved by the power and grace of Christ, we kneel down to worship, and we stand up to serve. We realize in the presence of the living God that the treasures that can be stored in chests, the gold and wealth we have accumulated and collected, belong in the service of God. The treasures of our time, the lives we have been given to live, are not for the pursuit of wealth or luxury or security or social standing—they also belong in the service of God. Even the treasures of our hearts, those things that cannot be held in boxes or explained in their power, yield to Christ’s will. A true homage sacrifices self to give to others.

Roman Nativity Figurines

Opening up our treasure chests is not easy, and it does not come naturally. But when we journey closer to Christ, like those wise men, we are transformed. We change from curious seekers and star followers into treasure guys, generous givers ready to offer all our treasures for the glory of God. And we join our single human lives  to the compelling power of the stars.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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