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Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Give?

Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6

     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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