“Our Great Gifts, Fit for a King”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, January 2, 2011
At the First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
There is no beginning or end to what we have started,
And to what we can do together.
This morning we awoke —
The sun was streaming through the window of our lives.
The time is now. The days are bright,
But they will darken.
And the earth is gleaming in space, spinning.
On the coming cold and dreary days we need
All the love we can give to keep our lives bright,
And to spread glad warmth,
From the wellsprings of our being, inward to ourselves,
And outward to each other.
Each day is that important.
No day is more significant than any other; than
the yesterday or the tomorrow day.
Now is the time we are.
In the coming year let us do good things for one another.
— Harry Scholefield
“The Journey of the Magi”
T.S. Eliot, 1888-1965
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
“The Queens Came Late”
By Norma Farber
From When It Snowed That Night
The Queens came late, but the Queens were there
With gifts in their hand and crowns in their hair
They’d come, these three, like the kings, from far,
Following, yes, that guiding star. They’d left their ladles, linens, looms,
Their children playing in nursery rooms,
And told their sitters:
“Take charge! For this
Is a marvelous sight we must not miss!”
The Queens came late, but not too late To see the animals small and great
Feathered and furred, domestic and wild
Gathered to gaze at a mother and child.
And rather than frankincense and myrrh
And gold for the babe, they brought for her
Who held him, a homespun gown of blue,
And chicken soup—with noodles, too—
And a lingering, lasting cradle-song. The Queens came late and stayed not long, For their thoughts already were straining far—
Past manger and mother and guiding star And child a-glow as a morning sun– Toward home and children and chores undone.
Have you heard about the singing bus driver? There was once was a man who wanted more than anything in the world to be an opera singer. He loved the three tenors, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras best. He spent all his time emulating them, singing in the shower, serenading the neighbors, who liked him but wanted him to hurry up and get famous and move to NYC. Time after time he auditioned for a part he knew front to back, and time and again he was turned away. He couldn’t understand it. “But I love to sing!” he said. At last a friend took him aside, and broke it to him. “You simply are not good enough for the stage. You’ll have to do something else.” Heartbroken, the man took a job as a city bus driver. For months he drove the bus in silence, but after a while he couldn’t hold back and he began to hum. No one seemed to mind. Later he let out a few warm up notes, and no one said anything. Finally, he began to sing. Seeing as he knew whole operas by heart, it wasn’t difficult to launch into an aria or two. The A’s and the high B at the end were always thrilling.
And in time the bus driver became well known. Often at the end of particularly loud and joyful piece, passengers would applaud, and to the driver’s delight, from time to time he even received a standing ovation! Sometimes, at stop lights, the driver himself even stood up to sing! His heart was happy. His people were happy. It is even said that his regular passengers waiting for a bus would let other buses pass on by and risk being late to work, just to be on the Singing Bus.
I know this story is true, not only because I’ve met people who’ve been on a Singing bus, but also because I know that this can happen to all of us. We have something inside to let out, and it’s good for others, and yet the world seemingly slams closed the audition doors. You’re not ready, you’re not good enough, your “gift” is not a gift at all. Go away.
And yet possibility awaits.
In its essence, this is the meaning I find in the story from Matthew that we’ll read this morning. It’s traditionally read during the twelve days following Christmas leading up to Epiphany, on Jan 6th. Epiphany, which means “revealed” in Greek, is the time when the magi, people of the priestly class, traveled towards Bethlehem to meet the recently revealed “King of Kings.” Now, a word of warning before I read a paragraph of Matthew; if you are someone who gets hung up on the word Jesus, let alone irked by all the hype, just listen as though the baby in the story were not THAT baby, but rather a singing bus driver. Someone the opera turned away, but yet a person so full of life, that others around will endure the extra wait in the cold just to get on board with all that joy.
The ancient story of the magi is useful for its lessons, rather than its facts. Believe me, the guiding star has no astrological proof, and despite the song we just sung, the text doesn’t really say how many magi there were. Somehow because there were three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—it has been assumed there were three wise men. There could have been 40 of them! 20 of them could have been those queens! Also, on the technicality side of things, BC usually means “birth of Christ.” But, since King Herod was recorded to have died in 4 BC, and Jesus is estimated to have been born approximately two years before that, between 6 and 4 BC. Then, I guess Jesus predates himself.
But seriously, the text is useful. It’s function is to make us look at ourselves and squint… Am I who I say I am?
The two aspects of the epiphany story that draw my attention are King Herod’s nature and what he represented to the people of his time, and to the people of today. The second, in contrast, is the attitude of the wise men.
Reading: from The Gospel of Matthew 2:2-12
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage. (At that time it was common belief that each person had a star.) When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests, the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea…
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
You have probably heard the rest of the story, that Joseph too was warned in a dream to take his wife and child to Egypt to protect them from Herod. Herod didn’t really want to pay Jesus a homage. He just lied to cover his tracks. You may also have heard of the copycat act Herod tried out when the wise men didn’t return to tell him of Jesus’ whereabouts. He ordered the slaughter of all the boys under age 2 in the vicinity of Bethlehem , as had been done back when Moses was born.
King Herod was not a good man…
He had much power, but little support in his own kingdom. As a half-Jew, his subjects, whom he taxed heavily, considered him to be far too “Roman” in his ways. He was hated as a tyrant, even by his own family. Herod married frequently, often after executing his previous wife, and ultimately had ten wives all together. At one point he was so jealous of his favorite wife, that he created a plot to accuse her of adultery. His wife’s own mother testified against her daughter to save her own skin, but then Herod killed them both anyway. He had a habit of killing off his subjects and family members, especially his sons depending on whom he thought least suited to rule after him.
Herod was continually writing to Rome for permission to execute one or two of his sons for treason. Finally even his patron and friend, the emperor Augustus had to admit, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” This was not only a play on the similar sounding Greek words for son and pig , but of course also referred to the fact that pork, at least, was not consumed by Jews.
When Herod was nearing the end of his life it occurred to him that he was both feared and hated. He wanted everyone to mourn publicly when he died so his will instructed his wife and sister to imprison the 70 most respected rabbis and learned officials, and to kill one of them each day following his death. Luckily this order was not followed.
Why was Herod so violent, suspicious and cruel? Well, my guess is that he felt insecure, unloved and he had a lousy early childhood. But that ship sailed long ago, and we’re left knowing simply that he despised anyone who was a threat to his power. We can see it today, political leaders and even great nations sometimes do irrational and shameful things when they are scared they are not “number one” in the world.
The message I think we can take from this is not so much the personal one, (though I’ll admit it’s a good good start if you walk out of here today thinking, “wow, I gotta remember that, killing off my family is bad…”)
But rather, the story reminds us of a broader viewpoint. What are the political implications of letting a “Kingdom mentality” dominate our American worldview? Looking ourselves in the eye we can see it. We are not the richest country, in fact we are trillions of dollars in debt to China, and yet we continue to borrow money to fund wars at an alarming rate. We lie about some of our real motives for these wars, until our sense of self as Americans is alternately bloated then deflated. We get caught up in thinking we know how to do things better, and this attitude of “American Exceptionalism” becomes our export and intrudes on other cultures and civilizations. More and more the wealth within our country falls into the hands of a ruling elite, while we can’t seem to provide decent health care to our poor and elderly. The National Poverty Center in Michigan reports that one in five children under 18 is living in poverty in the states. They show up hungry to school. And how can you learn when you’re hungry? I used to have a T shirt which read, “It will be a good day when the schools have all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” I know it’s not that simple, but I feel ashamed. Do you?
In many ways, I fear our beautiful diverse and idealistic country is being corrupted by a Herod-like attitude. Though our political views may differ, I feel sure that none of us want that deep selfishness to take over. Not in our homes or schools. Not in our churches, temples, mosques, zen centers… Not in our nation. Not in our world. If the powers that be rule by fear or hatred, then it’s time for us good, down to earth regular old folks to gather, think and listen to one another, and get organized.
Thankfully, in recent years I’ve noticed that grass roots organizing is taking shape again in ways it hasn’t since the political unrest of the 60‘s. I loved that in 2008 anyone who wanted to participate with Get out the Vote could do so. Even young people who couldn’t vote yet themselves lent their motivation and energy to the project. Groups like MoveOn.org, and even the Tea Party Movement, are simply large groups of people who decided to join together in displays of effective activism. Our country is capable of so much good when we organize, when we gather with a shared good goal, and when we believe we can make a difference. Margaret Mead said it so well: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” This new year has so much potential, especially when we begin it together.
Last month I offered a challenge to anyone who would take me up on it. Based on the idea that we can counteract selfishness and greed by doing intentional and well-thought-out good deeds, I gave out two 20 dollar bills in each service with the simple instructions to “Pay it Forward.” The idea caught on and soon more people were raising their hands to sponsor other volunteers. Like planting a sunflower from a single seed, soon a thousand new seeds of possibility grow. To counteract “Herodism” in the world, here are some of the projects you started.
One hundred dollars was raised through matching gift funds and helped buy school supplies and bus passes for Iraqi refugee kids in Lowell, without which they would have no way to get to school. Girl Scout Troop 7208 organized a Frosty Holiday Shop at a shelter in Waltham for the second year, giving residents a chance to select a few gifts and have them wrapped to give their loved ones. Most would have had nothing to give without this opportunity.
Twenty dollars went into a pool of money at the Women’s Finance Initiative (WFI), an organization that provides micro-loans in rural East Africa. Along with the money, WFI provides training sessions in budgeting and book-keeping. The twenty women in each micro loan group provide a support system for each other, and *all* guarantee each other’s loans. If one of the twenty women can’t repay on her own, the others cover her repayment. The Finance Initiative gave its first loans in January of 2008, and there is, so far, a 0% default rate on their loans.
Twenty dollars went to The Partner Church Council to help with paying for Transylvanian high school students to attend the Unitarian School there, the cost of which is $200 a year per student. Another recipient of the twenty dollars sent the money to Horizons for Homeless Children, and someone else chose to match that gift.
One family took their twenty dollars, and asked two other families to join with them, and together sent sixty dollars to Heifer International. This was enough to purchase three flocks of chicks for families in Zimbabwe. The eggs the chickens produce provide a reliable source of protein for children who otherwise subsist mostly on starches. Extra eggs can be sold to pay for school, clothes and medicine.
And lastly, one person sent her money to the U.S government to help pay for government funded programs like public schools. These were all small gifts, but imagine an egg when you are near starving. And know that together we can do great things.
This brings me to the other aspect of the epiphany story that is most important. Our readings today all mentioned wise men and women traveling long distances carrying their gifts with them. Yet these presents, like all good metaphors, are simply reminders of how we should carry ourselves in the world. “Open the door and let love in!” Befana cries, naming of course, both the readiness of the world to accept what we have to offer, and reminding us that at times we are the only ones standing guard in our own doorway, blocking or accepting the tenor who is serenading us in the street, offering his voice like an outstretched rose.
Perhaps you can remember the last time you visited someone sick at home or in the hospital. Maybe you love this person, and you would bring them anything they asked. Good homemade soup, with noodles too, or a favorite book to read. What gift should I bring, you wonder? But when you ask, what answer comes? “I don’t need anything, just bring yourself.” You. Your friend wants you. You are the gift, and your presence, your listening attentive honest self is what is needed. When you enter, you bend to place a kiss on your loved one’s cheek. Like the wise men who came to pay homage, it is the surrender and the love in the gesture that matters most of all. Presenting their gold, frankincense and myrrh, was merely an extra token of goodwill.
When I worked in a hospital, I once visited a tiny woman who was near death. Like the wise men, I thought I could bring her my presence. I thought I understood how to do that. She had gone blind and was very deaf. “The CHAPLAIN is here!” her nurse hollered into her ear. “Oh!” the woman beamed. “Where?” and as the nurse left the room, the old woman, smiling, reached out her crumpled hands towards me. I took them. She pulled me near. So near I thought our noses would touch. But perhaps she was trying to see. In the end she placed her hands over my face, and her fingers rested over my closed eyes. Her hands were soft like a baby’s skin, and her breathing was slow. I waited. I tried to show my care for her in my face, and yet she herself was more present than I have ever been. I could feel it. After a little while she began to recite Tennyson. There was a long pause between every verse.
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
The tears rolled down from beneath my eyelids and slid down her palms. I couldn’t help it. I knew she could not have heard me if I had spoken, but my words were not important. And I knew she couldn’t see me, but tears are tears, and we shared them, sitting there, contemplating existence and dying together. And when at last I opened my eyes I believe it to be true that I have never seen a more peaceful face before me.
Isn’t this so often the case? We come with a gift to share, and we are given one instead?
This is the awareness we must bring into the new year together. That our gifts are good gifts. That we have within us the ability and the thousand seeds we need to bless the world.
Our gifts are fit for affecting the Kingdom, no matter what state it’s in, or honoring ordinary/extraordinary, folks like our singing bus driver King.
So as our new year unfolds, let us bring our good gifts. And let us open our eyes to all the gifts that come our way as well. Be careful not to miss your chance to leap aboard the Singing Bus.
May the doorways of our beings remain always open, knowing that when Love calls, we should let her in. For what we are about to receive, and for what we can choose to give in the year ahead, may we be truly thankful.