Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Psalm 19: 7-10
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
“This is my favorite thing, is like, when someone takes a recipe that works, and then changes everything about it.” This is what chef, teacher, and author Samin Nosrat said to her dear friend and “Homecooking” podcast co-host, Hrishikesh Hirway. “This is my favorite thing, is like, when someone takes a recipe that works, and then changes everything about it.” The recipe they were talking about was Hrishi’s mom’s beloved mango pie recipe. Hirway, who is a producer of several podcasts and a musician by trade, is also an avid home cook. The mango pie recipe is one of their family favorites.
Hrishi’s family immigrated to the United States from Western India. And, like many families, incorporated their favorite ingredients into foods and celebrations in their new home. The mango pie was Hrishi’s mom, Kanta Hirway's, answer to a pumpkin pie. Hrishi speaks of this pie with such reverence: “It was, and still is, the best dessert I’ve ever had.” The recipe includes a graham cracker crust with a little cardamom in it, and a mango custard made with whipped cream, cream cheese, and mango puree, specifically, Alphonso mango puree. The Alphonso mango is a particularly delicious mango. Hrishi argues that his mom’s recipe is superior to all other mango pie recipes because she only used this kind of mango.
So, what’s this business about changing a recipe that works? Hirway’s mother died in 2020 after being ill for many years. With the pandemic, they were not able to gather for her funeral the same way that they usually would. She died just before Thanksgiving, too, and the family just was not up for making the pie without her. But, in 2021, Hrishi and his wife found a way to more safely gather friends for Thanksgiving. He decided to make mango pie. He also decided to try to make it vegan.
I don’t know how many of you have tried to make food that usually uses dairy fat with vegetable fat instead. While there are many vegan recipes that work really well, Hrishi’s first attempt at a vegan mango pie... did not. You might have guessed that when you heard that Samin had commented, in great jest, that she thinks it’s great when people take a good recipe and change everything about it. She knew that the custard part of the pie hadn’t worked at all. In the episode of their podcast, Hrishi shared how the pie filling just hadn’t set at all. It ended up with a consistency more like melted ice cream. It was still delicious... just not exactly pie.
Not one to be daunted by a recipe that didn’t quite work out the first time, Hrishi decided that if the pie that didn’t set kind of remind him of melted ice cream, then maybe his alterations to his mom’s recipe might actually make good ice cream. He started working with an ice cream company called Salt and Straw to create an ice cream inspired by his mom’s recipe. While I have not had the ice cream because 1) I just learned about it, 2) it is not a company that sells much here, and 3) I am allergic to mango, it sounds delicious. They tried to follow her recipe closely, blending mango puree with cream cheese and whipped cream to create a custard like her pie filling. They then swirled something called a caramelized mawa ice cream with the mango custard. I learned from the Salt and Straw website that wawa is a dried evaporated milk often used in Indian sweets. And, lastly, they put crumbled and salted graham cracker dust on the whole thing. This whole thing sounds wonderful and Hrishi was so proud to be able to share his mom’s recipe with the world in one more way.
As I was thinking about today’s scripture, which speaks of the beauty of God’s wisdom, I thought of this story from the Homecooking podcast. I think it takes a lot of wisdom to make something good come out of a failure. It takes a lot of wisdom to be able to look at a result that didn’t turn out the way you expected, and still find the things that did work and are worth building on. Just because the new thing doesn’t work right the first time, doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. Sometimes the thing you’re trying to do doesn’t work the way you want, at least not the first time.
Even Mrs. Hirway’s original recipe came from her tinkering with other mango pie recipes developed by other Indian immigrant cooks, trying to combine the food traditions of their home culture with the food ways of their new home. It sounds like she perfected her recipe through experimentation, only really loving it when she realized that Alphonso mangos, being so delicious, would make a richer pie. It also sounds to me like she helped teach her son how to keep trying new things until you find the most delicious version possible, even if what you make along the way isn’t perfect. While the Psalm says that God’s teachings are perfect, we aren’t God. Our attempts to live out the Wisdom passed on to us will inevitably be imperfect. But, we must remember that you can build on the imperfect. You can’t do anything with the “never tried.”
In Rolf Jacobsen’s commentary on the text, the portion of the Psalm we heard today is described as a teaching who God is and what God wants for our lives. In this scripture, and others, God’s teachings and wisdom wrought from those teachings are the place where we learn what God hopes for our lives. God’s wisdom is to be cherished and pursued. It is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey... maybe even sweeter than mango puree. Wisdom, gleaned from the law, is God’s gift to God’s people, as a parent offers a child rich food to help them grow strong. Or, maybe even more like a parent who teaches her child to build on, play with, make good use of the wisdom she is teaching him.
In their conversation on the podcast, Samin described what happened with Hrishi’s recipe experiment as “Pie failure, but ice cream success.” My hope for this week is that you pursue the wisdom shared with us with the fervor of a kid eating their favorite dessert or a home cook trying to find new ways to share his culture and his family story with friends. And, I hope that even if your attempts to bring this wisdom to life aren’t perfect the first time, you find your own ice cream success as you keep trying to make the recipe anew, even if you have to ask some friends to help you tweak the new recipe you’ve created.
I will finish with these words Hrishi shared about his mom in another article about the ice cream: “My mom, like so many moms, gave me a sense of who I am through food. She brought joy into my life and other people's lives through her cooking. And I'll always be thankful for that.” May we all be so blessed.
Resources consulted while preparing this sermon:
The Homecooking podcast where Hrishi Hirway and Samin Nosrat talk about the mango pie experiment: https://homecooking.show/episodes/17
The Mango Pie recipe: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1019974-mango-pie
The article about the Mango Pie: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/magazine/mango-pie-indian-american-recipe.html
Another good article by Hrishi about the pie and about the ice cream that was inspired by it: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/giving-thanks-through-the-joy-of-mango-pie/
A description of the ice cream https://saltandstraw.com/blogs/news/thanksgiving-traditions-told-through-ice-cream?_pos=1&_sid=92fe9343b&_ss=r
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-psalm-197-14
1 Peter 2:2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’ To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’, and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Has anyone here ever heard the word “cornerstone” before? Do you know what one is? Yes. That’s right: A block or stone that is set in the corner of a building, often the first corner. It is supposed to be strong and stable, and help set the direction for construction of the rest of the walls.
You might see it laying on the ground, as one of the first parts of construct or a few feet up from the ground, often at the point where a building is shifting from foundation walls to the parts of the building where we live and work. Sometimes buildings have special cornerstones to celebrate when they were built or values that were important to them when they built it.
I asked some pastors I know if they’d be willing to share pictures of cornerstones at their churches. I found another neat picture of one, too. I wanted to show them to you.
This cornerstone is from Ceres Bethel AME Church of Jefferson, Maryland, built in 1870. It has the name of the pastor at the time, too: L. Bensen. You can see where the foundation was made of stones, and this was put in as the last stone before the rest of the building was added. I found this image at: Cornerstone, Ceres Bethel of A.M.E. Church 1870 L. Benson, Pastor, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58592 [retrieved May 11, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceres_Bethel_African_Methodist_Church,_cornerstone_(21604465715).jpg.
Cornerstones come up a lot in the Bible. Sometimes it’s just because they are describing a building or someone being able to build. In Job 38, God is talking to Job about creating the universe, comparing the act of creation to that of constructing a building. God says,
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
And, the prophet Jeremiah talks a little about cornerstones, but only to say that Babylon, the country that had beaten Israel so badly in war, was soon going to have a downfall so spectacular that they wouldn’t even have stones left to build with.
Other times, though, when the Bible is talking about a cornerstone, they are actually talking about a person. Today’s scripture is a day when they are talking about a person. Do you remember who the person is? That’s right, Jesus. I said earlier that one way that Job talked about what God does is comparing the creation to a house God built, laying a cornerstone so the house will have a good foundation. In some cases, what God is building is a community or a country. People would describe a leader as someone who is like a cornerstone, that is, helps create a strong foundation for their country. In Isaiah 28, the prophet describes a leader who hold corrupt religious leaders and rulers to account. That person is called a cornerstone. They will lay a foundation with justice and righteousness. When people were trying to figure out how to explain who Jesus was and when Jesus himself was trying to explain his mission, he and his friends often turned to Isaiah: “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’”
We’re not sure who wrote the letter that we call 1 Peter. It might be someone called Silvanus who was acting as kind of a scribe for Peter. But, it probably was just someone who appreciated Peter’s teaching and lived a few generations after he did. This person wanted to help members of the church in Rome deal with a difficult situation. This was a time when most people weren’t Christians. And, some people did not trust those who were Christians. According to a scholar named Eugene Boring, they thought Christians were unwelcome and maybe even dangerous. When you go from feeling loved and accepted by society to feeling unwelcome and having people say abusive things to you, it can be really hard. The person who wrote this letter wanted help them manage being untrusted and being treated badly. Because that’s something that our faith is useful for: giving us comfort and also reminding us that Jesus gives us the strength to do what’s right, even when it’s hard and the majority of people don’t want you to.
Even to this day, when so many people are Christians and largely aren’t being persecuted in this country, we know that it can be hard to follow your faith when the broader community is making different choices than you are. As just one example: Right now, when it seems increasingly popular to try to criminalize transgender people and keep them from being able to exist safely in public, we Christians who know that God loves transgender people may feel pressure not to say so out loud because so many people are being cruel to people who they think are trans. Even though we know that our faith in Jesus tells us that transgender people deserve love and care, especially for people who aren’t transgender, it can be tempting to not share that part of our faith aloud. It is tempting to stay silent as a way to protect ourselves.
Our reading today does not tell us to pretend to be less faithful than we are to survive. Instead, it tells us to look to Jesus, our cornerstone, our foundation, and build up a church, like we are building a house, and make it strong enough to withstand the forces that would punish us for daring to live our faith in public. This is what it means to be church: to think of ourselves as stones lain upon the cornerstone of Christ, standing firm together for love and justice.
This week, as you watch the news or think about legislation being passed that you know is harming some of God’s beloved children, I hope you remember this text and feel less alone. We can be a spiritual house together. We can help make each other brave. We can teach each other to advocate. We can care for each other when things are hard and still live our lives faithfully, even when the broader community seems to be lost in suspicion and abuse. I hope you will feel Jesus, a cornerstone under your feet, making clear the path of love and justice before you.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carolyn Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-fifth-sunday-of-easter-may-18.html
The entry on "cornerstone," written by Robert A. Wild in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achetemeier, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)
Shively Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-1-peter-22-10-3
M. Eugene Boring"s, intro to 1 Peter in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Psalm 23: The Divine Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff-
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
I have told you all this before, but I often think about it when I read this scripture. When I was in elementary school, I did not go to church regularly. My sisters and I occasionally went to Sunday worship with my grandfather. Those of you who attended the Alive and Thrive workshop the Maine Conference held here last weekend heard Marisa talk about how some kids get involved in church because their grandparents take them. I am one of those kids. We nearly always went for vacation Bible School in the summer. And, sometimes we'd make it to the Easter service, primarily because there was an egg hunt after church. But, that's really it.
I am from the South, a region that continues to be one of the most consistently religious and persistently Christian areas of the country. Much of my family and many of my neighbors were active Christians. My great-grandmother was deeply religious and wanted to make sure that I had a good foundation in Christianity. She sang hymns while she pushed me on the swing in her front yard. She made sure that a children's Bible was among the books I could read at her house. She also taught me some Bible verses. While Psalm 23 wasn't the very first passage she taught me, it was one of the ones that she made sure I knew.
My great grandmother wasn't the only reason I knew this passage. I felt like Psalm 23 was all over the place. It seemed like this scripture was on the back of every funeral bulletin. It was printed on little cards that sat next to the cash register in bookstores. It was occasionally on stickers on pick-up trucks and big rigs that roared past us on the local highways. As far as I could tell, most people, even people like me who didn't attend church regularly, knew this passage. And, many of them claimed that it was their favorite passage in the whole Bible. I must admit if you don't know much else in the Bible, this passage does seem like a good one to know.
I think people like this Psalm because it shows them a God who is involved and invested in their life. Through it, people engage with a God who is there, even in the worst times, to bring comfort and support. When people need help, they read it and see that even though they may feel like they are in the shadow of death, in the end, goodness and mercy will follow them. They will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. When times are hard, we need the comfort and protection of God's rod and staff.
While researching this Psalm a while back, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon. He encourages us to remember a few things that might help bring new life into a scripture that many of us know so well. He points out that this Psalm is about a journey. If you have ever met sheep, you know that they aren’t necessarily in the habit of walking in orderly lines towards a destination. They are actually hard to keep track of. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you hire an experienced shepherd to guide them.
This shepherd in the Psalm guides the sheep by leading them to what is called “paths of righteousness.” LeMon notes that the shepherd is not hacking these paths out of the wilderness. The original Hebrew indicate that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before the current flock. LeMon seems to argue that to move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and use this groove to make your own journey easier. You don’t travel this distance alone. Your community has cleared the path for you, and you clear the path for those who will follow.
One of the things that is hard about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When the Psalmist spoke of being a sheep as a metaphor for a faithful life, that also includes a recognition that a sheeply life is also sometimes a perilous one. Death is, too often, close. But, God, the shepherd, offers protection and safety. The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, plenty of food and drink. The enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It may have a more powerful meaning. LeMons says that the word that here is translated “follow” is more often translated as "pursue." So the sentence maybe be more like “I will be pursued by goodness and mercy my whole life long.” In this Psalm, faithfulness means that you will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by good.
As I said earlier, many of us read the last verse as a happy ending: I will live in God's house forever. We read the story as though we are working through a journey with a definite end. We are simply working our way from point A, our lives, to point B, God's house, where we can stop. LeMon suggests another reading of that last verse. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't leave us with the house of the Lord as an endpoint where you stop, but, instead, maintains the idea of movement and journey. This word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return”. He suggests the translation, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our return to the places where we most closely feel the presence of God. We can seek God down deep in the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God is present in the journey, not simply as the destination.
With LeMon’s work in mind, Psalm 23 becomes a more vibrant, active vision of faith. It captures the seasonal nature of life. The ups and downs of our journeys. It keeps us connected not just to God, but to the ones who helped break the paths that God leads us down. It reminds us that we will help make the paths for the ones who follow. And, this part about being pursued by goodness and mercy... what a gift in a time of anxiety to be invited to replace the wolves in our hearts and minds with a good shepherd, following along, keeping us safe and guiding us to the food and drink that nourish us.
I hope you’re finding good paths these days, with ruts that guide you along the way. Even when the journey is difficult, I pray that you feel the presence of a shepherd guiding you to places of respite and through the shadowy valleys. May you feel enveloped by goodness rather than chased down by death. And, may you return and return and return again to the presence of God, the one who tends to your needs all along this journey.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.