The only gift I have to offer this week is my sorrow for Paris, Beirut, Syria, Iraq, and all of us. So I offer the Psalms I go to when I am in the midst of sorrow and pain. May your hearts be comforted by the words of the psalmist and may you find solace knowing others cry with you.
Psalm 36:1-4 (MSG) A David Psalm 1-4 The God-rebel tunes in to sedition—
all ears, eager to sin.
He has no regard for God,
he stands insolent before him.
He has smooth-talked himself
That his evil
will never be noticed.
Words gutter from his mouth,
Can’t remember when he
did anything decent.
Every time he goes to bed,
he fathers another evil plot.
When he’s loose on the streets,
He plays with fire
and doesn’t care who gets burned.
Psalm 42 (NRSV)
1As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God. 2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? 3My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?” 4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them in procession
to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival. 5Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6and my God. My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan
and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. 7Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows have gone over me. 8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. 9I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?” 10As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 11Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
Prepared for a Sermon at Queen Anne Christian Church, Seattle WA
January 18th, 2015
Scripture: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Have you ever had that feeling you are being watched and you turn around and around to see who is there? I have and I must admit it often feels creepy! Someone is watching me, why, who are they, what do they want, will they hurt me? Some might say these are the questions of a paranoid mind, but, given the status of our world today, not uncommon in these days of uncertainty, fear, and, let’s be honest, at least a little hate, ok a lot of hate.
So when I read the Psalm for this week I had to really think what it means to be “watched,” “known,” by God. This Psalm is telling me that I am being watched, by God no less. Is that a good thing or should I be afraid, really afraid. As I was contemplating these verses I remembered an incident out of my childhood. It was a memory of being known by God and knowing it was keeping me safe.
Nearly 62 years ago I was severely burnt and spent 6 months in hospital healing and having reconstructive surgery. In reality I am blessed to be here, because I should have died that summer, but didn’t. However, I did spend a great deal of time on a children’s ward of a Cleveland Hospital. There were number of other children there as well, just as injured and ill as me and one little boy and I became good friends. I do not remember his name; I do remember he was dying. He was a little older than I was but could not walk; I could get up and walk a little but couldn’t read as well as he could. I would get books and games to play with and he would read the harder books.
Children will often tell another child something important when they aren’t sure their parents would understand or listen. So one day he told me that he knew he didn’t have long to live and he wanted me to tell his parents he was ok with it. You see he had a guardian angel who stayed by his side and the angel had told him he would be going soon and no longer in pain, his parents would be sad for awhile but they would remember him forever.
One night I awoke to a great deal of crying and saw the mother holding the little boy. I remembered what he had asked me to do so I crawled out of my bed and tried to tell them that the boy was OK, and that he was with his angel now. However, before I got very far with that a nurse scooped me up and put me back in my bed saying something patronizing. I never really talked about that incident again; I understood what I had to say was pretty unimportant to adults and not worth listening to. It was the thought of the time that children didn’t understand death or God and it was, and is, a wrong thought.
Being known by God, being watched by God, children understand that, after all they are always being watched. By parents, teachers, friends, family members who want to keep them safe. So knowing God is watching them is no big deal, just one more person on the list to keep them safe. Besides isn’t there something comforting knowing you have a guardian angel nearby, how cool is that.
From the time they are formed in the dark, cavern of their mother’s womb they are cradled and whispered to by angels. By 18 weeks of pregnancy the embryo begins to hear his first sounds, Mom’s heart beat, the movement of her blood, and bowel sounds. He also hears His Mom’s and Dad’s voice, music, laughter, and tears. To him it’s, Angels voices coming from, everywhere. Children know they are being watched, searched out as they are being formed in the dark.
After birth we are still connected to those angels, only now they have blurry faces, but they can see the angels smile at them and hear their whispers and while breast feeding they still hear the comforting sound of Mom’s heartbeat.
It is a sad fact that as we grow we forget those connections to the mystery of our beginnings. We let other sounds carry us away from the angel’s voices, the whispers that we are beloved and we are watched over. We, who were made so carefully, struggle to be free of the binders, free of being hemmed in from behind and before. We, who in secret were made so wonderfully and woven of star dust and love, want to run free of the restrictions of God, angels, or anyone else.
Yet there is a part of us that yearns to be known. Oh we may fight it, rebel and run away because we want to “do it our way.” But really, at some level, isn’t it comforting to know just how beloved we are? The Psalmist said “My days are all inscribed in Your Ledger; Days not yet shaped—each one of them is counted.” Those counted days are from the moment we are conceived in flesh to the moment we let go of this body and return to God. Yes we still have days that God has counted that we know nothing about, yet. But God is still watching and still planning, or more likely, revising our life plan based on our latest actions.
You see I’ve never been a big proponent of predestination, were God has planned our lives out before we are born. No I am a firm believer in free will and our obligation to choose life over death. We, you and I, must choose to follow one path over another and depending on our choices our life is rewritten again and again. I know that because I have had my life rewritten all because I’ve made some rather dumb choices in my life. My guess is we all have, because we are human, we are embodied; we are separated from that light of God and God deliberately put us on our own resources for a purpose we do not know. (My first question for God when I return is “what were you thinking.”)
What the Psalmist tells us is even in our bad choices we are watched, cared for, beloved, held safe, and not alone. God keeps us in God’s thoughts; we are never far from the Divine mind. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.” “I am still with You,” God is with me. Matthew writes that Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We have that promise. God has not left us alone, Jesus has not left us alone, the angels are still whispering, if, only we listen.
Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi translated verse 14 as follows, “I am overcome with thanks at Your awesome wonders, Your astonishing works, of which my soul is aware.” Our souls know what God does, what Jesus does, even when we are unconscious to those actions. Our souls know even when we reject God’s call that we are not alone. That we are watched over and having our lives rewritten again and again based on whether we chose life or death.
Those angel whispers, messages of comfort from the Holy, still hold for each and every one of us. That first sound we heard in our mothers’ wombs, the first whisper of life from the sacred, was a heartbeat. It still is the whisper of life for all of us. Without our hearts beating strong and level life will fade. But it is not just the heart of our flesh that we need. We also need the voice of the heart of our souls, our spirit, to truly live life as God intended. Remember Moses’ last words “choose life.” The messengers of God, the angels voices all whisper, “choose life.”
Ah summer, filled with hot days and warm nights, homemade popsicles and fresh fruit. On hot days I love to amble over to Yost Park and walk under the tall trees in the cool shade. I don’t want to exert myself too much; I might after all get too warm. Therefore today as our spiritual practice for the week I offer a verse from the Psalms. I present you with the Psalmists simple practice of walking with G-d.
Psalm 116:9 I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living. – The Jewish Study Bible, Tanakh Translation May your warm summer days be filled with a gentle walk with the Lord.
Sermon – Epiphany Sunday
January 5, 2014
Queen Anne Christian Church Seattle, WA
Matthew 2:1-12 (Common English Bible [CEB])
Coming of the magi
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Greek derivation of Magi, (Strongs Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek Dictionary)
3097.magos mag’-os (of foreign origin (7248); a Magian, i.e. Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician:–sorcerer, wise man, [interpreter of dreams, prophet]. (plural, could refer to a male or female wise person)
The story of the Magi is such a familiar story. We have heard this story so many times before and I am sure all of us are able to repeat it without difficulty, at least the surface story. I was confronted with this simple story, which is anything but simple, when I chose to meditate on it for Epiphany Sunday’s Sermon. Sitting in silence, letting the words of Matthew settle into my subconscious I realized there is so much more to this tale than I first believed. There are also way too many questions to address in a single sermon. If you ever wanted to experience an abundance of graces just read this story carefully. I could go into the fact that the gender and number of the Magi is never mentioned in the scripture and that the Magi were gentiles; or the Magi don’t visit the stable, they come to the home of Joseph and Mary; and because the story of the killing of the Bethlehem’s children that follows the Magi’s visit lead scholars to believe Jesus could have been as old as 2. And, that’s just few of the questions I found in these 12 verses of Matthew Chapter 2. What did intrigue me, and what I will discuss, was never addressed by all of the learned theologians I perused. What I wanted to know was the reason these learned gentiles come in search of a child, a child born to a carpenter and his wife. And, what unknown gifts still hides in this story for me, and all of us, beyond the pretty tale of rich strangers visiting a destitute baby?
First of my questions was what did the Magi expect to find when they arrived in Jerusalem. Since they came to the city of the kings of Judea they must have expected to find the child born there, and to parents with more than a lineage to David. My guess is they had expected to find a somewhat wealthy family, or at least fairly well off. After all they were looking for a King and you normally don’t find one living in the home of working class people. They must also have been confused and terribly disappointed that no one knew what they were talking about. I mean, the birth of a King is big news isn’t. Doesn’t everyone celebrate the birth of a King? It isn’t until King Herod calls them for an audience do they learn that the prophets foretell the birth of “the anointed one,” “the Christ,” was to happen in Bethlehem. I have no doubt they left somewhat confused. But, eventually they find the baby living in the home with his mother and father. They even bring gifts, and while Mary might have preferred diapers, the gifts they gave were costly and fit for a King. (By the way Bethlehem and the gifts are never mentioned again, why? Another question to confound me.)
They were seeking a child, an infant King, someone who would turn the Roman world upside down and I can only imagine their surprise at finding the child in such humble circumstances. They brought gifts Herod would have drooled over, gold, frankincense, myrrh. Wonderful gifts but not really practical for the family they found, well the gold was probably most welcome. But frankincense and myrrh those aren’t baby gifts. Frankincense and myrrh were used to perfume oils and ointments for the purification of worship spaces and the anointing of the dead.
Now I know what Matthew was implying by the gifts: Gold was the symbol of Jesus’ kingship, frankincense the symbol for the priestly role Jesus would be called to live, and myrrh a foretaste of what he would endure at the end of his life. But I think these gentile scholars brought something else and it has been bequeathed to us today and our children. The Magi brought the gift of “seeking God’s face.”
God has always welcomed us and longed for our inquisitive search for the face of the Divine, and She encourages us to reach for her Holy arms. One of David’s Psalms says it well:
30 I will praise God’s name with song;
I will magnify him with thanks 31 because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves. 32 Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
You who seek God—
let your hearts beat strong again
— Psalm 69:30-32 (CEB)
And in the Book of Acts Paul tells the Athenians “27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” (Acts 17:27) No God is never far away, we are. And, seeking the face of God is one of the joys of creation we should do more often.
The Magi were the first to seek God’s face in its incarnated form, the face of a child. For Matthew the Magi represent the mission Jesus gives his disciples to reach out to all peoples but especially gentiles, and those born within the great humble mass of humanity, in all its lovely diversity; poor and rich, young and old, all genders, all races, and all people.
For me the Magi represent the longing to see God in the face of my beloved, my grandchildren, best friend, and all creation. I too want to see the incarnated God, I too long to see the ever present being in the first light of dawn, and I do see it in the face of my beloved when he first opens eyes in the morning. The Magi have passed this longing down to us and I am grateful for the gift and grateful to pass it on to the next generation.
The Magi’s gift of presence to a child in a humble home was passed on to us through Jesus’ presence in his life, death and resurrection. Now it is our mission to be present to the incarnated child born to humble parents. To recognize and honor the incarnation born in each of us, through our gifts to the world whatever they may be; caring for each other, the environment, our nation, and our world. It is up to us to be the Magi of today and visit the child in a humble home, to offer the gold of our love, to purify our mistakes with the frankincense of compassion; and to anoint those who pass on to the next world with the myrrh of God’s blessings and praise. In a Judean desert David writes:
God! My God! It’s you—
I search for you!
My whole beingthirsts for you!
My body desires you
in a dry and tired land,
no water anywhere. 2 Yes, I’ve seen you in the sanctuary;
I’ve seen your power and glory. 3 My lips praise you
because your faithful love
is better than life itself! 4 So I will bless you as long as I’m alive;
I will lift up my hands in your name.
— Psalm 63:1-4 (CEB)
So too are we called to offer our praises to God, honor the child that lives today, in each one of us, and in all of creation. Seek the face of God in all you meet, child, adult, male or female, and all of God’s marvelous creation. Look in the eyes of your loved ones, your companion animals, see the face of God looking back. Amen
9I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” 10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 11Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
I have to admit I haven’t always lead an exemplary life and the life I have led has been on roads and paths G-d might have preferred me to avoid. Those bumpy roads led me to places where I felt abandoned and alone. But, I have to remember that I choose those roads, I choose to ignore the sacred voice within and live outside of G-d’s love. I choose to be there, even when the event that got me there was none of my doing I still choose NOT to recognize I wasn’t alone. I couldn’t or wouldn’t see G‑d walking beside me every step of the way. I choose to see only darkness; I simply refused to see the luminous darkness that was G-d.
Yes I blamed G-d for all the bad events in my life, isn’t that what every human does? As a human being I saw the worst and assumed the worst. I rolled around in my self-pity, yelling at G-d that life was unfair and therefore G-d either didn’t exist or didn’t care what happened to me. I yelled at G-d telling her “why are you doing this to me, why aren’t you there for me, why am I so alone.” I was so busy trying to run from those comforting arms that I never recognized that it was G-d holding me up, that Jesus was the one helping my broken spirit and that the Holy Spirit was trying to dry my tears. Because I did not recognize G-d I was afraid, so afraid. My bones shook with fear until I thought they would break. I could not see that what happened to me were the consequences I had to experience and live through in order to find my way back to a better place.
It wasn’t until I ran out of tears, ran out of words, until I ran out of myself that I was able to open the door and let you in, G-d. Only then, O Divine One, did I feel your presence and finally rest in your outstretched arms. I was still afraid, but I wasn’t alone any longer. My fear was not as frightening because I knew you were there, and I know it now, in this moment of time I now live.
Why do I put myself through all of that? Why do any of us? Is the struggle to return to you G-d after I have rejected you so important to my understanding of you as unconditional love? Well I think I know the answer to that question and it is yes. Yes it is important to walk through the darkness in order to see the light. Sometimes I have to test my own limits before I learn that you have no limits.
You, Oh G-d, will always welcome me back when I have strayed from your side. I know you are always there in the dark with me but my eyes are blinded by your startling bright light and I cannot see. Because I can’t see I fear you’ve left me to stumble in the darkness. It is only when I regain some hope that you are there, that my eyesight begins to clear. When I choose to hope, I choose you, oh G-d. It is when I choose not to recognize you, there beside me, that I become hopeless and unable to see your glory all around me.
So I will choose hope, I chose you oh G-d, I am choosing you G-d. I have made my choice and I choose to live in your light, your love, your hope. Will I sometimes forget that choice, probably? In some future time I will again fail to see your presence in the dark and you will be there walking right beside me. You will not leave me alone even if I believe you have. But the big difference now is I know you forgive, I know you offer me grace and I will fall into your arms when the tears and words run out and you will comfort me.
O patient G-d I am grateful for your presence, even when I push you away. Grant me my moments of struggle and suffering even though you suffer with me because, in my suffering I discover again your amazing love. Amen