Sermon preached January 6, 2013
Texts: Matthew 2:1-12
Bad gifts. [Power Point slide] It is just hard to pretend you like them. Maybe some of you are suffering with some bad gifts from this Christmas season – perhaps a holiday tie that wearing once a year is too much [PP], maybe an outfit your thoughtful partner bought you that just isn’t you [PP]. Among the list of underappreciated gifts might be a bad breath tester, or its companion an air freshening system for your home, diet cookbooks or self-help books (“How To Become a Better Spouse”), a Walgreens flu shot gift card, or a home drug testing kit given by a grandparent.
If you received any of these gifts, or if you spent more than an hour on December 26 returning gifts, this sermon, entitled “good gift giving,” might seem particularly untimely to you. But on this Sunday when we read about wise men from the East coming to visit the child Jesus, I want to talk briefly about good gifts and about giving. I want to talk about them by contrasting central characters in the story of the Magi, the wise men.
Let me put this discussion in its broadest context. Life is a gift. Max Ehrmann was a writer of the early twentieth century. He is not well-known or widely published, except that one of his “poems,” composed in 1927, has found its way onto greeting cards and posters for many years – Desiderata. I discovered it in high school. One line reads: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” Life is a gift.
Mary Oliver is a well-known and well-published poet still writing. Her poem, “The Summer Day” ends:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life.
Your one wild and precious life – life is a gift.
Life is a gift, and what we do with it matters. It is a lesson we have learned again powerfully as we have watched Julie’s mother die this week. We see two very different options for what we do with the gift of life in the story of Jesus birth from Matthew’s gospel. On the one hand we have Herod. Herod the Great reigned as King of Judea for over thirty years (37-4 BCE). His reign was marked by prosperity, by close collaboration with Rome, and by a ruthlessness in maintaining power. When he died, his sons continued to rule under Roman authority.
In the birth story of Jesus, Herod the Great, though Jewish, is more like the Pharaoh in the Exodus story. He is willing to eliminate perceived threats to his power and authority. He worries that there may be another to claim he is king of the Jews – Herod’s title. He wants to deceive wise men from the East, and later engages in a mass killing to get rid of any pretenders to his throne. Herod finds the meaning of his life in maintaining his power and position. Life may be a gift, but it is a gift best enjoyed only when one has unrivaled power and prestige.
On the other hand we have the wise men from the East. Life is a gift best enjoyed when one follows dreams, adventure, stars rising in the night sky. The wise men give of themselves. They pay attention. They take time to follow a dream, a star. When they encounter a special child they offer gifts from their treasure chests – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, that always seems useful. The child could invest it in a trust fund – First Hebrew Bank/Roman Empire. Frankincense might be classified as a bad gift, unless you wanted to burn some incense in the nursery. Even if you did, this was an expensive way to go. Myrrh, too was an expensive item used more for perfumes than anything else, but also used medicinally. Maybe another not so great gift for a child.
While the specific gifts given may not have been that wonderful, and I am being tongue-in-cheek here, these wise men were wise in their use of the gift of life. They understood good gift giving and how to make the best and most of the gift of life. We receive and appreciate the gift of life best when we learn how to give, how to share, and in our giving and sharing help others enjoy the gift of life.
There is a financial side to this for us all. I am not mentioning this because we still need funds for our 2012 budget. We did o.k. at year’s end. I mention it because it is a part of our spiritual lives. We receive and appreciate the gift of life best when we learn how to give, how to share, and in our giving and sharing help others enjoy the gift of life.
More important than the financial side of this is to understand that the greatest gift we can give is our time, our attention, our energy. Life is a gift, but it seems to diminish, shrivel when we cling too tightly. Life is a gift, and we understand that most profoundly when we live in such a way that we make our lives gifts to God and to others. The Wise Men understood this. Herod did not.
A farmer whose corn always took first prize at the state fair had the habit of sharing his best corn see with all his neighboring farmers. When he was asked why he would do such a thing, he said, “It is really a matter of self-interest. The wind picks up the pollen and carries it from field to field. If my neighbors grow poor corn, the cross-pollination lowers the quality of my own crop. I want them to plant only the very best.” (Anthony de Millo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 133). When we treat life as a gift, and share it as a gift, we are better able to receive it as a gift.
Denise Roy is a mother, a psychotherapist and a spiritual director. She writes about developing a spirituality while keeping all one’s other commitments, like commitments to being a mother. She has a delightful book entitled My Monastery is a Minivan. I know that I have shared this story from that book before, but want to share it again.
Roy tells the story of being in a store on a hot summer day, with her youngest daughter in a stroller. While in a discount department store, Roy overheard an assistant store manager being quite rude to a little Latino girl and her mother. Roy had seen the little girl take a long stick with a beautiful cloth butterfly on the end of it off the shelf and begin to twirl it around. “What a thing of beauty – to witness all of this aliveness right here in this otherwise drab and cluttered aisle” (135). The assistant store manager did not see things that way. She chided the little girl for playing with a toy before paying for it, and was rude to the girl’s mother besides. The store manager was called, and Roy offered the little girl’s mother help. She would be glad to tell the store manager how inappropriate the assistant manager was. Roy wanted this mother to know she was not alone, and she wanted that little girl to know that she was lovely and blessed. Reflecting on this incident, Roy writes: Right then, I knew that this is how we help God out: by telling one another in words and in touch that we are lovely and whole and worthy of blessing. If we do our job, then one day the magic will happen. We will all blossom, every one of us. Together we will emerge like butterflies, soaring and dancing in sunlight, our hearts shimmering with praise. (141)
Life is a gift. What we do with it matters. We can choose to hoard whatever we can get in our lives, to see life as a gift only when we are at the center, clinging to that position. We can choose to receive life graciously, give the gift of ourselves generously, and in our giving and sharing help others enjoy the gift of life, help others see their lives as lovely and blessed. This later way seems more the way of wisdom. It seems more the way of Jesus. When we follow it together we all blossom. We all soar and dance in the sunlight, our hearts shimmering with praise. Amen.