“Kings and Cakes and the Promise of a Child” January 22, 2023 in the Season of Epiphany

Do you know who Baby Yoda is? He is a character on a Star Wars related tv series called The Mandalorian. He’s an infant of the same alien race as Yoda, who was a mentor to Luke Skywalker in the early Star Wars movies. The baby on The Mandalorian is actually named Grogu, and he is being chased by the bad guys in the story, who work for the Evil Empire, who are out to capture him, and dissect him, to learn about, and exploit his powers. Little baby Grogu looks helpless, but carries within him the capacity to harness and use the force, the mystical energy of the universe, and do a lot of good.

He is a special child, whose potential power is a threat to those with vested interests, and who is at the same time vulnerable, and will not survive without kindness and help.

The Mandalorian is a bounty hunter assigned the task of capturing the special child. He broke his contract to protect the child. He wears armour, and carries weapons, but was defenseless when it came to the vulnerable child, who opened his heart, and inspired love.

Much of the story takes place on a desert planet that looks like it could be Israel or Egypt.

It’s easy to see parallels between the wondrous child Grogu, and little baby Jesus, whose earthly protectors were forced to escape to Egypt, after Joseph was warned in a dream the evil King Herod was after the newborn. Joseph and Mary fled with the child, and took refuge in Egypt until the evil king died, and was no longer a threat to the child. Matthew’s Gospel says:

When the Magi had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”

At Harrow United Church during Advent we heard different stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood that did not make it into the New Testament. (non-canonical gospels) These stories were written for particular communities, and were told with details and images that would speak to people in those places.

Scholars believe Matthew wrote for fairly educated, Greek speaking Jews. He drew on images and themes from the Jewish Scriptures that were available to him, in a Greek translation called the Septuaguint, which was prepared for Jews who did not speak or read Hebrew.

When Matthew quoted a line from the book of the prophet Hosea,  “Out of Egypt I called my son,” he was referring to the Hebrew slaves who escaped from Egypt, and were lead by Moses on a journey to a promised land, where they established a new nation. This is the origin story of the nation of Israel. It’s the story of how God reached helped people who were suffering and oppressed in slavery. God was with them as they found new life, out from under the grip of a cruel empire.

Matthew was quite deliberate in connecting that story of resistance, to the story of baby Jesus. Matthew paints a picture of Jesus as Moses for a new generation, sent by God to free the people of Israel, who lived under the oppressive and exploitative rule of the Roman Empire.

Jesus began life as a vulnerable child, and grew up to offer hope and new life, because he had caring and brave protectors who hid him from those who wanted to kill him.

According to his origin story, Moses was born during a time when the King of Egypt, the Pharaoh had commanded all the male children born of the Hebrew slaves were to be killed. The Pharaoh feared the Hebrews were becoming a threat to his power.

The newborn Moses was hidden by his mother for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she coated a papyrus basket with tar and pitch, and set the child floating in the basket, among the reeds along the bank of the Nile river. His big sister was standing at a distance when the daughter of the Pharaoh came to the water to bathe, and found little baby Moses in the basket. She opened the basket, and found a little crying baby, and felt sorry for him.

(Baby Grogu’s hover-pod looks a lot like a basket.)

The Pharaoh’s daughter knew what was supposed to happen to Hebrew baby boys. But her heart opened, and love won out, and she took the little one home, and he grew up to become part of the royal household. She gave him the name Moses, which meant, “drawn up out of the water”.

It’s interesting to think about how Jesus’ public ministry began after he was drawn up out of the waters of the river where he was baptized.

Moses, Jesus, and little baby Yoda. In each story the special child is hunted by the forces of evil, and is saved, and survived because of protectors bound to them by love. The child of promise survives to fulfill their mission, in a world that can be cruel and scary, and in which there are powerful forces of which you must be wary. That’s the story we celebrate at Epiphany.

In Mexico, and many other places influenced by Latin culture, like New Orleans, the King Cake is a big part of the celebration of Epiphany.

A couple of years ago Lexie and I had friends come to our house with a king cake. They are circular, and often decorated in bright coloured sprinkles and icing to make them look like a crown. 

Show this slide of King Cake when prompted

The king cake gets its name from the story of the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus. 

Somewhere inside the cake there is a tiny little baby Jesus, sometimes wearing a tiny little crown. He was hidden in the cake to keep him safe, and if you find him, it’s up to you to carry on the tradition, and at the next Epiphany party, you bring the cake. In some cultures, whoever finds the baby King gets a prize.

In 2021 there was a minor controversy in Mexico. Companies started selling king cakes for the Epiphany season in which they’d hidden, not little baby Jesus, but Grogu, little baby Yoda. Some church officials declared it disrespectful of tradition.

Of course, when that happened, sales of baby Yoda cakes went up. Predictably, some religious conservatives became even more irate. Baby Yoda, who is already quite loveable, found an even bigger place in the hearts of some folks who already felt picked on and looked down on by the same religious conservatives who want to tell you what can be in your party cake. 

Baby Yoda cakes became a playful symbol for the LGBTQ community, which was even more annoying to some of the more conservative religious folks. You can imagine that cycle going around and around, like the circle of a king cake.

What appeals to me about this story, is that in the midst of a clash between people who want to keep the upper hand, and those who just want to live their lives, we find the figure of a tiny, vulnerable baby, who has the power to win hearts, and encourage us to love, just by being there. Amen

The Mother Hen Heartbeat: Learning Time at Harrow United Church for March 13, 2022 (Lent 2)

Audio File of Learning Time

This past summer, to prepare for our first actual vacation since the pandemic, which had us driving up to Thunder Bay and back, my wife and I bought a “new to us” vehicle. It’s a few years old, but still new enough to have features we’ve never had before- like the proximity sensor that warns us when we are reversing and maybe getting too close to something.

I know the vehicle has this feature, but it still surprises me when the system beeps at me.

Vehicles better equipped than ours can warn you if you veer out of your lane. That could be a very useful thing for a preacher- to know when I’m maybe heading off road into rough territory. That may happen today. If it does, I am sure that someone will let me know, later.

Jesus thought he was right on course, preaching God’s love and helping people, and making his way towards Jerusalem when he was warned by some Pharisees, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

It could be that the Pharisees were warning him to stay in his lane- and not drive head on into trouble. But why would they do that?

In most Gospel stories the Pharisees are not cast in a good light.  They are portrayed as the self-righteous, arrogant, law abiding sticklers who got their tunics in knots because Jesus didn’t following the letter of the religious laws.  It often seems like they are the villains in the story. 

What do we make of them warning Jesus about an even bigger villain, Herod?  I can think of two ways we might explain why the Pharisees would sound the alarm,and try to steer Jesus in a new direction.  

One explanation is they were honestly concerned about Jesus and wanted to help him.  Maybe these Pharisees were not like the others, which is a good reminder for us these days, that we cannot paint everyone with the same brush. Not all truckers, politicians, Russians, Ukrainians, you fill in the blank, are all the same. 

Another possibility is that Herod sent the Pharisees to Jesus on a secret, devious mission.  Maybe Herod didn’t want to show weakness, to give any sign he was worried about the teachings of a lowly, itinerant peasant preacher. He might have thought if he could just scare him off in a quiet way, there would be no public indication he felt his authority had been challenged. 

This might seem a little out there until we remember that in Matthew’s gospel it was Herod who tried to co-opt the Magi into his schemes. He sent the Magi on their way saying, “go and find him so that I may worship him”.

Not trusting Herod, and being warned in a dream, the Magi went home another route.

Herod had a track record of being wily.

When the Pharisees warned, “Stop, go a different way” Jesus didn’t put on the brakes, or turn from the road he was traveling, that led to Jerusalem. 

Jesus responded with a message for Herod.  He said, “Go and tell that fox for me ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” 

It is at places in the text like this that I see the craft of an excellent writer. The phrase “today, and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” is a powerful and poetic allusion to Good Friday, the day and night in the tomb, and then Easter morning. It is a foreshadowing of a story familiar to us, because we know what lies ahead in Jerusalem. That’s where we are headed through the lenten season.

I see that same poetic genius at work in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who offer the warning. We hear him say, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now”.

It’s clearly not a compliment. I wonder if the Pharisees delivered the message as Jesus asked. It would not have made Herod happy.

In ancient writings the fox symbolized sneakiness, cunning, and slyness.  In contrast, the lion symbolized power, authority and regal stature. They were both predators.

Jesus sounds pretty snarky. Does his name calling surprise you? Do you like that he is not simply the meek and mild, get along with everyone guy he is so often portrayed as being? I think there are times when getting along with everyone can get in the way of telling the truth. Nice is not always good.

It’s helpful to imagine Jesus as more complex, with a full range of emotion. We can see him as more like us, and like us, living in a complicated world.

At this point, the tone shifts, and Jesus’ frustration with Herod gives way to his care for the people of Jerusalem.  This part of Luke’s story is a lament, a passionate expression of grief.

As people who have lived through a pandemic and are now seeing countries at war, we know a thing or two about lament.  We have grieved for the ways in which life changed and for opportunities that were lost. Our hearts sink when we hear of hospitals being bombed and thousands of people becoming refugees. 

Jesus was in grief over what was being done to his people. They were subjugated by the Roman Empire, who controlled Herod, their local puppet king, who in turn kept the religious leaders on a leash. Jesus looked at Jerusalem, the political capitol and religious centre of his country, and saw corruption, indifference to the needs of the poor, and religion that went through the motions, but shied away from true faithful living. No one wanted to rock Herod’s boat.

We can imagine Jesus shaking his head as he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  We do not know what prophets Jesus was speaking of, although I wonder if he was thinking about John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod, because John had pointed out Herod’s violation of religious laws, and his abuse of power.

Jesus’ lament continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This is a beautiful metaphor for God’s love,, and one of only a few feminine images we can find in the Bible, which was written and edited by men. 

A mother hen will go out of her way to protect her chicks.  And if a fox gets in the hen house, the fox will have to deal with mother hen. 

Jesus knew Herod held the power in Jerusalem. He knew most in Jerusalem would play it safe and side with Herod.  But Jesus did not turn his anger or bitter disappointment on the people. 

He expressed compassion and care for them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

It’s a wonderful image of community- all the little chicks together, and safe.

If Jesus were to look closely at the communities where we live, would he see us as happily gathered together, helping each other, sharing warmth and shelter?

Would Jesus look upon us and see some good things, but also see things to grieve?

It is of course a rhetorical question, because we are human, and we are works in progress. We can always improve. We can always learn, and find ways to do better.

One of the ways we have come a long way as a church, as a community of faith, is in our increasing openness in the ways we think about God. 

Mother Hen with her chicks is a decidedly feminine image for God, and it is not as shocking or surprising to hear it mentioned in church as it would have been when I was growing up. I know that makes me sound like an old codger. Back in my day…

In the church where I was baptized, and went to Sunday School, and later on became a Sunday School teacher, the images and language for God were always male. always authoritarian, and never to be questioned. I don’t blame those folks. But I do think they missed out. There were limits placed on the ways they were taught to think about God, about Jesus, about life, about everything. They didn’t know what they were missing, and what new possibilities can open up in life, when we open our hearts, and our minds.

If we are on a journey towards acceptance of a wider range of language and ideas about God, we may also be on a journey towards more openness about what it means to be human.

I don’t know how it is in your family, but when I talk to my kids, who are now 19 and 22, I marvel that in their world, in their lives, acceptance of, and friendship with people who have different gender and sexual identities is taken for granted.

They know that in many places, and in many churches, people who do not identify as heterosexual are not safe or truly welcome in their communities. Many people have been taught, keep it to yourself, don’t flaunt it. Don’t rub our noses in it. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset people.

Many younger people in my life find discrimination on the basis of where a person is on the continuum, the rainbow of identity, to be sad and confusing, and cause for lament. Some of my friends who want nothing to do with church will put this pretty high on their list of reasons church is not for them.

Shouldn’t there be room for all of us chicks, under the brooding Mother Hen? Shouldn’t this be one of our core values as followers of Jesus- that no matter what pain the world causes you, what labels or discrimination you have had to endure, there is room for you here?

My heart hurt this week as I followed the news about Florida, which is currently on the verge of passing two very disturbing pieces of legislation. One law would prevent discussion of gender and sexuality issues with younger students, and would bar schools from even considering creating or using curriculum that used the words “gay, or lesbian, or trans”.  As if these words in themselves are dangerous. 

Another bill about to be passed will make it illegal for teachers to even suggest that anyone experiences oppression, or privilege on the basis of race or sex. Wow. 

During Bible study this week, someone pointed out that one beautiful aspect of the Mother Hen image for God is that all the chicks are close enough to hear their mother’s heartbeat.

I want that for my kids, and for all their friends. I want that for all the children of God. I want to be able to say to people who feel lost, or sad, or lonely, or hurting, or tossed out of their families for saying certain words, or loving in a certain way, that even if the world is scary and cold, our church could be a place where you can feel warm, and hear God’s heartbeat. Amen