Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Epiphany and Gifts

Matthew 2:1-12

When you hear the story of the Magi, what thoughts or questions come to mind for you?  I want to review a quiz that I gave you the first year I was here and see what you remember:
               First of all, in what book or books of the Bible do we find the story of the three kings?
               None.  There are no kings mentioned and there is no number mentioned.  Instead we are told “some wise-men” or magi from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the king of the Jews. 
               What, then, are magi?  Are they kings?  No.  Astrologers.
               About how old was Jesus when they came to see him?  Between 41 days and 2 years.  While some say it would have taken only slightly over a month of travel (one direction), others estimate that it was a year or more out of their lives that this entailed. So, then, did they come to the stable?  No, of course not.  The story says “to the house”.  They would no longer have been at the stable since we are talking between 41 days and 2 years.

               Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  What were these things and why were they important in this recounting?  Frankincense is often used as incense or in an anointing oil that was often used in the temple for religious reasons.  Myrrh is similar and can also be used as an oil or incense, but mostly was used to embalm the dead.  These things were incredibly valuable, monetarily, but they were also symbols of what was to come.  Symbols of a recognition of Jesus’ holiness, but also, his death.  Both are purifiers, and readiers for death, for sacraments, for religious tasks, all of which would be Jesus’ life.   The magi travelled far, took time away from families, occupation, home: significant time.  They gave most precious gifts, gifts that required all of who they were – their resources, their time, their commitments, all to come and see this baby and to bring this baby their gifts.
               What are we this committed to?  What do we care about enough that we would leave home, leave FAMILY, sell all we have to spend on a gift for someone whom we’ve never met before and may never see again? 
               I think about the pilgrims and what they gave up to start a new life here in the United States.  Many of them gave their lives, dying in the travel, with the hopes for something better.  Many gave up family, leaving them behind or knowing that they risked some not making the journey successfully.  The same remains true of many of our immigrants today.  Many of those who come here as refugees or as people escaping their countries of origin are truly risking everything they have and everything they are to try to find a better life, usually for their kids.  They make this commitment, this journey, all to begin again, to start something new.  I think about this, how they gave these most precious gifts of starting in a new place, travelling, their resources, to create a new life, new possibilities, for their children, their children’s children, their family.  But these magi, they gave these most precious gifts for the hope of a new tomorrow for Israel.  They gave these most precious gifts for strangers in a strange country, in a strange world.  For a future they would never see.  For a time they would not and could not be a part of. 
               Can you imagine that?
               God loves us in this way, giving up everything to give us the most precious gifts, of life, of Jesus, of salvation.  As Bonhoeffer said it, "God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."
God also calls us to love in return in the same way.  Of course we aren’t always going to succeed in doing that.  And sometimes it won’t look like giving up everything to follow God.  But the willingness and faith to give all we have to further God’s reign, God’s place, God’s LOVE here on earth, that is our call. 
Michael Piazza told this story: Harriet Richie, a writer from Anderson, South Carolina, wrote a story that her family had been to a Christmas Eve service that ended at midnight. After worship, her husband announced that he was hungry and wanted breakfast. Of course, it was almost 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, so none of the usual places they might have gone were open. They made their way to the interstate where an all-night truck stop was still open. A few big diesels rumbled outside. Inside a few truckers sat at the counter. A jukebox played country music. On the front window was a string of colored blinking lights. The place smelled like bacon grease and stale coffee. A one-armed man behind the counter nodded the family toward a booth. Soon a waitress named Rita sauntered over, handed them their menus and asked what they wanted to drink. Harriet looked around. She felt a little bit like a snob and out of place. Her family had just come from a beautiful Christmas Eve service. And soon they would be heading to their lovely home for the night. She thought one day they would look back with a laugh and say to each other, "Remember that Christmas we ate breakfast at that truck stop? That awful music and those tacky lights?" She was staring out the window when an old Volkswagen van drove up. A young man with a beard and baggy jeans got out, walked around and opened the door for a young woman who was holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth near the back. After Rita, the waitress, took their order, the baby began to cry, and neither of the young parents could quiet him. Finally, Rita set down her coffee pot and held out her arms for the baby. "Hon, just sit there and drink your coffee. Let me see what I can do." Soon it was evident that Rita had done this before. She began walking around the place showing the baby to first one of the truckers and then another. One began whistling a Christmas tune and make silly faces. Quickly the baby stopped crying and began cooing. Rita showed the baby the blinking lights on the jukebox. She brought the baby over to Harriet's table. "Just look at this little darlin'," she said. "Mine are so big and grown they don't need me no more." The one-armed fellow behind the counter brought a fresh pot of coffee, and, as he refilled their mugs, Harriet felt tears in her eyes. Her husband wanted to know what was wrong. "Nothing," she said, "just Christmas." Reaching in her purse for a Kleenex and a quarter, she said to her own kids, "Go see if you can find a Christmas song on the jukebox." When they were gone, Harriet quietly said almost to herself, "He would have come here, wouldn't he?" "Who?" her husband asked. "Jesus. If Jesus were born here tonight and the choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be right here, wouldn't it?" Her husband didn't answer right away, but looked around the place, at the people there. Finally he said, "I suppose either here or a homeless shelter." "That's what bothers me," Harriet said. "When we first got here I felt sorry for these people because they probably aren't going home to nice neighborhoods where the houses have candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors. And listening to that awful music, I thought, I'll bet nobody here has even heard of Handel. Now I think that more than any place I know, this is where Christmas is. But I'm not sure I belong."
As Harriett walked with her family to the car, her husband leaned over and said, "You know I heard something earlier at church. They said what the angels sang that first Christmas was, 'Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.' Maybe they meant us, too." –

What God values – we see throughout scripture – is not what we are told is important.  God does  not value wealth, does not rank people based on what they have, what they have achieved, or how much others like them or know them. Jesus was born in poverty, to an illiterate, unwed, teenage mother.  The shepherds to whom this story was proclaimed were not wealthy, high standing members of society.  These were poor people, rejected people, people who were not valued.  And that is where God chose to come, chose to announce God’s presence. 
The magi, on the other hand, did seem to have resources.  And the value in this story is that all are welcomed.  All are invited.  All are called to be willing to give all of what they have to be part of the kingdom that is coming, part of celebrating what God has done, part of bringing in what God would do.
         Of all the gifts we have to give, our time, our attention, our faith, commitment and love are by far the most important.
               Our most moving Christmas stories are all about giving.  The Littlest Angel who gives his dirty childhood box.  The little drummer boy who gives the gift of his music.  In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim gives his faith and love: and later, Scrooge, when he gets it together turns around and gives his time, his love, and his resources.  In It’s a Wonderful Life it’s George Bailey who gives all of who he is to serve the people of his town and in the end, it’s their returned friendship that saves him.  The most moving Christmas stories are all about what we have to give and how we choose to give it. 
               We aren’t the magi.  We aren’t paid by kings to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh, or our current equivalent of gold, stocks and investment properties.  Some of us have resources, lots of them: others don’t.  What is important is not the amount that you give, but that you give from your heart the best that you have to give.  That you follow the stars to seek out God and to give to God the best that you have.
I’m reminded of a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. 

               As we’ve done for the past two years, today we pass out stars.  Each of these has a word on it with the name of a gift or “virtue”.  These are gifts for you to reflect on for the next year, to focus your thoughts, prayers and attention for the year.  Next year on Epiphany Sunday I will ask you to share stories about how those words or stars might have touched you this last year.  They are upside down in the baskets and I ask you to pick one without looking at it first.  These aren’t “magical”, but I do think that there can be a gift in focusing on one of the many blessings God has given to each of us for a set amount of time.  I look forward to hearing how your lights will show and touch the world this year, how you will have been touched by God’s light this year.  Amen.