1/5/2013 sermon: What gifts will you bring to God?

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany Sunday

What gifts will you bring to God?

There was a cartoon about the wise men being passed around Facebook just before Christmas. The punch-line was visual, not verbal. The cartoon shows three kings offering presents to baby Jesus: gold, myrrh, and the monster Frankenstein.

The very thing that is funny about this image is also the horror-filled thing: We come with our best intentions to worship Jesus, and sometimes we get things horribly mixed up. Sometimes we substitute our own ideas for God’s, as reflected in the gifts that we choose to bring to God.

This joke made me wonder what gifts I will offer to Jesus this year, and why God, who has everything, NEEDS gifts in the first place. I originally tucked these questions away because Bernard was scheduled to preach today. However, when he was called to visit his sponsoring parish to remind them of his existence, I remembered gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh. I hope that by sharing this and several other stories about bringing gifts to God, you, too, will wonder what gifts you should offer to God, and why.

The first story about gifts is one that I have already shared with some of you individually. I was working full-time at an Episcopal Church, waiting to quit my job and begin as a full-time seminarian. I hadn’t yet told any of the members of this church that I was seeking ordination to the priesthood. The year was 2008 and the economy had crashed, wiping away A LOT of my savings.

One day, when I was especially anxious about how I would pay for seminary, a member of that church called and told me that she needed to come to see me, right away. I tried to dissuade her because she was frail, lived a long way away, and rush hour was underway. “No,” she insisted, “I must see you immediately.”

When this woman, whose name was Rita, entered my office about an hour later, she was carrying a handful of $100 bills, all spread out like playing cards. “God told me to give these to you,” she said. “Now you need to tell me why you need them.”

Rita taught me two profound things that day. First, she taught me that when we bring gifts to God we of necessity entrust those gifts to other human beings, others whom God is calling to do something. As gift-givers, we literally are the hands and feet of God.

Second, Rita taught me to trust in God, that God provides everything needed to do what God is calling us to do. If God doesn’t provide, we haven’t discerned correctly. This is the difference between what God is calling us to do, and our own pet projects: God provides everything needed to do what God is calling us to do.

We see this in our gospel lesson today. The wise men came to Bethlehem to visit baby Jesus bearing gifts. We don’t know why the Holy Family was still in Bethlehem. We have a mental picture of the wise men visiting Jesus while he was still in the manger. However, we know that some time had passed before the wise men arrived with their gifts because King Herod subsequently killed all the boys who were two years old and younger. We can infer from Herod’s actions that Jesus was no longer a newborn child.

What was the Holy Family still doing in Bethlehem? Maybe the original Holy Family, like our own holy family here at Resurrection, had spent a year re-visioning their future. Maybe Joseph and Mary had been praying about how to proceed, what to do next, given that they had been given God’s work to do to raise the Son of God.

Mary and Joseph MUST have been re-visioning their future, discerning what to do next because God had sent them so many signs. “You will become pregnant with God’s Good News,” the angel had told Mary. “Not my will, but yours,” Mary had replied. Can’t you just picture her now, a year or so later, praying, “OK, now what?

“Name the child Jesus,” another angel had told Joseph. “Now what?” Joseph must have prayed about toddler Jesus. “You’ve given us the MESSIAH to raise, should we go back to our home in teeny tiny little Nazareth in Galilee?”

The thing that is so dangerous about praying these discernment prayers is that God always answers them. And the answer usually is a lot bigger, a lot bolder, than our own small conception. “But God, I didn’t know that you had priesthood in mind! I was thinking you might have some, um, smaller task for me to do.”

“But God, We didn’t know that you had Egypt in mind!” Mary and Joseph might have said. Or our very own response here at Resurrection, “But God, we just wanted a few new members with serious money, not a whole new mission!”

When God answers our discernment prayers, there are always gifts involved to enable us to do what God is calling us to do. Oftentimes the gifts come first, even before the call. Remember God’s call of Moses to lead his people out of slavery? When Moses protested that he was not articulate, God told him that he had ALREADY send his brother Aaron to be his spokesperson. In our gospel lesson today, the wise men came bearing costly gifts. They didn’t know that their gifts would fund a trip to Egypt to avoid the early death of the Christ child. All they knew is that they had seen his star and had come to worship him—and true worship involves gift-giving.

Mustn’t we all, when we come to worship Jesus, come bearing gifts? In this way we acknowledge that everything that we are, and everything that we have, is a gift from God, on loan to us. Our intellect: completely unearned, and on short-term loan; our money: again, not our doing, but God’s; our families: a total gift (most of the time), and all-so-fleeting. Everything that we have, and everything that we are, is a gift from God, on loan to us.

A few years ago, two unrelated Goodwin House residents died. Neither was a member of this church; they didn’t even attend here. Each had faithfully attended other Episcopal Churches their entire lives. Yet each of these people bequeathed major money to this church. Ut-oh. Get ready to be on the move for God.

God_providingJust in case we have forgotten this lesson, in the past three weeks several people who are not even members of this congregation have collectively given us almost $20,000 in gifts. Like Rita’s gift, which did not even come close to paying for my seminary education, these gifts will not allow us to carry out the bold new vision that God has called us to do. These gifts will not even allow us to balance our budget for the past year. BUT, they remind us that God will provide—has provided, is providing—all that we need.

We have many members here … to whom God has given major gifts. Not just money, but spiritual gifts: wisdom, faith, charity, hospitality, administration, teaching, mercy, helps, exhortation, prophecy, miracles, interpretation, discernment, apostleship, and evangelism. What gifts will you bring to God this year, and why?

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