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Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Give?

Epiphany,Yr.C
Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6
1/6/13

     Perhaps you've seen the cartoon that shows 3 women, bedecked in elegant robes and riding on camels, heading purposefully across the desert sands, following a star shining brightly in the heavens...with the caption, "If it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men:
They would have asked directions,
arrived on time,
helped deliver the baby,
cleaned the stable,
made a casserole,
and brought practical gifts."
     Gospel-writer Matthew's intentions were good--gold for a king, aromatic frankincense as a sign of worshipping his divinity, and myrrh to foreshadow the anointing of his body after death--but really? We all know that valuables aren't the best of presents for a toddler, and what if he tried drinking the oil of myrrh or choked on the frankincense?...though perhaps Jesus had fun playing with the treasure chests they came in!
     This story has suffered a lot at the hands of interpreters in any case. You'll notice that nowhere is their number mentioned; it's been turned into "We 3 Kings" by virtue of the 3 gifts. Countless numbers of nativity scenes aside, however many there were, they certainly didn't arrive at the stable; Jesus was likely a couple of years old and living in a home. And as a general rule, we leave Herod and the horrible consequences of his fear out of our re-telling of the story.
     However, I don't think our mishmash of the story is a problem on this particular feast. We're celebrating God's love coming to us in Jesus, the light that's come, not just for the religious insiders, but for everyone, for all nations and peoples: for shepherds who take a bottom of the barrel job, for harried or callous innkeepers who say no to a weary teen mother in labor, for the rich and powerful who in their pursuit of more riches and more power care not for the lives of innocents, for astrologers from far off lands who are in search of answers to a mystery. It's the "big T" Truth of Love for All, more than verifiable facts, that makes the difference.
     So whether the wise ones brought gold, myrrh, and frankincense or diapers and casseroles, maybe what matters is that they brought something. We're invited to shift our focus from the usefulness of the gifts to Jesus to our human need to offer our gifts to him, and to those for whom he cares...which is to say, everyone. Giving, in whatever form, transforms us; it helps us remember, to refer back to Sylvia's magnificent sermon last week, who we are rather than what we are. When we share from the heart, when we honor with our gifts someone who also is made in the image of God, we recall that we are children of a loving God who has blessed us abundantly; that we are those who follow a Lord who opened his heart to all, most especially those who are usually overlooked; that our call is to trust God, not our stuff or our strength, which should be held very lightly; that we are a community, bound to one another for mutual support and service together. Who we are, not what we are.
     An acquaintance of mine shared the story of one of her friends in San Antonio. This friend had a Groupon, a discount coupon you buy on the Internet, for an afternoon's use of a party bus. It was expiring on December 31st, and instead of going out on the town with friends, she decided to take a group of 1st and 2nd graders out and about for the day, doing random acts of kindness, giving to their neighbors. They went caroling at the nursing home, quietly paid for someone's meal at McDonald's, passed out quarters to surprised patrons at the laundromat, took cookies to the fire station. Even the bus driver was blessed in the process; when offered a tip at the end of the day, he returned it, saying that he'd been reminded that there is goodness in the world and that it was the best drive he'd ever done. However, I imagine that the ones who got the most from that trip were the children themselves, those young girls and boys who discovered the sheer delight of giving, and who were able to identify themselves as those who share generously. They had a hands-on lesson that day about going on a journey and bringing gifts to honor others.
     We might be tempted to dismiss that experience as just being a nice story about a bus load of kids, or to write off the travelers from the East who came to pay homage to the new king as a one-off band of seekers. What difference could any of them really make, to God, to the world, to themselves? I would say, all the difference… because, again, when we offer a gift, we are transformed, and the world with us, one small bit at a time. It doesn't really matter what the gift is, how old the giver or recipient, whether it's a special occasion or an anonymous act of sharing; if we're doing it to honor another and with a sense of gratitude, then it changes us. Each time, it's like pushing the reset button and returning to a state in which we're aware of our blessings and from whom they come, an attitude not generally otherwise reinforced by our society. God rejoices that our hearts and hands are opened, and that we are recollecting ourselves and reclaiming our purpose as those on a journey who share the light and love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
     Lord, may we be like the Wise Men who were guided to you by a star. Give us the wisdom to seek you, light to guide us to you, courage to search until we find you, graciousness to worship you and generosity to lay our gifts before you, who are our King and our God for ever and ever. Amen.


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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Who are you?

The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney
December 30, 2012
John 1:1-18
Not one thing in all creation was made without him.

     It happened again recently….perhaps it happens to you as well.  I was as I often am, in a church community that was not my home community after attending a worship service there.  All around me people were engaging one another in friendly and animated conversation.  These were clearly people who were happy to be together, who enjoyed one another’s company, who knew how to make community with one another.  As the newcomer in those situations I try and make myself visible and approachable, but I usually wait for someone else to make the first move.  Even when you have been invited to be in a new place. Even when you know you belong and have every right to be there, you want to be welcomed in.  I love the experience of being welcomed into someplace new; of literally watching people make space in their lives, in their conversations, in their hearts for a stranger.
     But sometimes that isn’t what happens.  I have on numerous occasions walked into a room and into a group of people, been looked over, sized up, sniffed at as unimportant and inconsequential and then promptly and quite conspicuously ignored.  It happens more often in churches than in any other setting I know of --except maybe academia.
     I notice this particularly because I live with two tall physically attractive people who can walk into the room and watch people turn to notice them with curiosity.  I can tell you for a fact that people almost never look at the average looking middle aged women in the room with curiosity. Even other middle aged women do not look at middle aged women with curiosity.  In people’s minds we are often more of a what than a who.  Sort of a somebody’s something or other.  I find this astounding because many of the most fascinating people I know in the world live a significant part of their lives as average looking middle aged women.  Take my friend Linda for example.
     In her late fifties Linda started going to a local chapter of Bible Study Fellowship to deepen her faith.  She was in many ways beginning a new chapter of her own life and wanted to delve deeper into the parts of herself and her faith she felt she had neglected over the years.  Before moving to Idaho, in addition to being the spouse of a Navy commander, a role that had made her an extremely compassionate and effective den mother and mentor to literally hundreds of other military spouses over the years and across the globe, Linda had also become a member of the President’s national security staff and had been present for many of the decisions and deliberations around the First Gulf War.  When her husband retired and they left Washington DC for rural Idaho, she left that powerful world behind, grateful for a chance to start life anew, without the heavy burdens, without the secrecy and subterfuge, without the endless politics and posturing that had so been a part of her life in DC.  She was, as you might imagine, brilliant, focused, and intense, but she did not wear it on her sleeve.  She’d learned well the art of blending in, and she wanted to live and be who she was now in small town Idaho, not who she had been in that other time and that other world. She wanted to be seen for who she was, not what she had been.
     She gave her heart to whatever she was doing and naturally took on her new Bible study training with enthusiasm and devotion.  What she looked like to her fellow Bible study members was your average middle aged house wife, because she was.  They knew nothing of her life before moving to Idaho and had made numerous assumptions about Linda based on her unassuming demeanor and their own life stories.           
     After a few months Linda knew as much as any of her teachers about the Bible, and she asked if she might become the leader of her own group and continue to grow in faith and develop for herself a new ministry.  After some deliberation she was told no. In the role of Bible Study leader she would be a role model to all of the women in the group and since she was somewhat overweight, she would not make a fit role model.  A somewhat overweight average looking middle aged woman was just not the image of leadership they wanted to convey in this program.  As nice as she was, she just wasn’t real leadership material.  Linda was stunned and crushed by their response.  ….I was furious and begged her to leave the group.  But she stayed on, faithful to her studies, and determined to give as she was allowed to.
     Some months later Linda contracted leukemia.  When she went into the hospital for her chemo and treatments for the complications from the cancer and the chemo, she decided that God was inviting her into a new and even more challenging ministry—that whatever was going on with this cancer, she would make it her ministry to bless every single person who came into her hospital room.  And she did everything in her power to live that out with the nurses who stuck her ten times looking for a vein, with the man who came in to mop her hospital room floors, with the oncologist who went from sick bed to sick bed trying to cheat death, with the priest who came to pray for her and received as many prayers as were offered.  Her husband, her sons, her church friends, even the same women who denied her an opportunity to lead a Bible study.  We all passed through her hospital room and found blessing and hope and love in the time that we were there.
     What one saw when one entered that room was just another average looking frightened middle aged cancer victim, someone already nearly invisible…certainly inconsequential ….except for the bald head and the scent of death that had begun to cling to her.   Who one saw if one stopped to look for the who.. was Linda beloved child of God with the courage of a Joan of Arc, the passion of a Hildegard, and the kind hearted-ness of a Brother Francis.  But in order to really see Linda, one had to stop focusing on a what, and instead focus on a who.
     John proclaimed of Jesus, an itinerant preacher from a no count backwater town in Palestine, “The Word became a human being and full of grace and truth lived among us.”  The Word became a human being in Linda as well.  She too blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another.
     It is the first Sunday of the feast of the Incarnation of God.  I think of the two great feasts of the church as celebrating almost mirror truths of one another.  In the feast of the Resurrection we see the inhumanity of human beings and witness God’s love at work triumphing over human evil and human made death.  In the feast of the Incarnation though, we are asked to see something else.  We are asked to see the pervasive holiness that dwells within all of creation.  We are asked to understand that God linked forever God’s own being with the life and breath of all humanity.  Forever and for all time, God proclaimed that no one dare relegate another human being to the status of a “what”.  We are, all of us, a “who”  fashioned, created, and loved by God.
     My favorite line in today’s Gospel is “Not one thing in all creation was made without him”.  That is such an audaciously outrageous claim to make about our world.  That the Christ, the Divine Word made human being was an intimate participant in our creation.  You would not be here without the Christ.  And neither would your annoying next door neighbor, your garbage collector, the woman who cuts you off in traffic, the man who checks you out at the grocery store, the kid panhandling for money at the freeway entrance, the yappy dog down the street, the deer that eat your rosebuds, or the ants that choose your pantry as their rendezvous spot on their spring migration.  The Trinity in some bigger than life-itself response to the love that burst forth from within them chose to make us…each of us, all of us, everyone of us, even the outliers and the seemingly oh so predictable, even the utterly average looking middle aged women among us.  The same God who chose to be embodied in the fragile olive skin of a helpless newborn  chose us, formed us, blessed us, and hallowed us so that we might walk, talk, work, play, eat, drink, and sleep in a world that is absolutely dripping with the stuff of God.  If only we stop not to sniff, but to notice!
     This is the week in our liturgical calendar when we are invited to stop and really see the holy in the world around us.  Often we are cautioned not to forget that Christ is here and Christ is present in the homeless, in the hungry, in the sick and in the lonely ….and that is absolutely true.  We know that and get that here (in our heads) even when we only partially get it here (in our hearts).  But today I would invite you to take one more glimpse at what the Incarnation is about.  It is about looking at every person you encounter as a who—not a what. Even the average uninspiring everyday ones.
     Who might you meet this week? Through whom might the Word become a human being?  Who might help you to see the deep, pervasive infinite holiness and goodness that circumscribes your life?  If you turn all those in your world who have become a what (a distraction, an annoyance, a crazy, an insolent child, a demanding spouse, an absent parent, a neglectful friend, a joykill, a financial burden,
a grocery checker, a cop, a bus driver, a Lexus owner, a gang member, a 1 percenter, a Republican, a Democrat, a congressperson, a tea partyer, a Giants fan, an employer, a jerk and a fool)  If you turn all those whats into a who….what, no Who will you by the grace of God in you…become?
     It is the season of the Incarnation of God celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God.  Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him.  Rejoice and be glad for we have all come to be through the light of his Incarnate Word.

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