The Givers are the Wisest

Epiphany 2008

I honestly do not think the story of the Magi ever gets old.  Little Luke watched the Nativity story a couple of weeks ago and walked around the house wearing his blanket saying he was a wise man.  New Year’s Eve he kind of freaked us out.  He came into the dining room where Sarah, the girls and I were playing games.  He was wearing a bucket on his head and he said he was a wise man.  He said, ‘I a wise man, Jesus is coming tonight!’

We find in the Magi story our own identity as a church, it is supposed to define and tell the world who we are.  In the past we have focused on Epiphany as the star who points the world to Jesus and I expected to come before you today and remind you of our task to be the light in this world, to ‘light up the darkness’ as Bob Marley would have said.  Yes, that is still our task.  But there are a couple of other things in the story I want to focus on today.

I do not need to recall the story to you.  There are many things in the story that are not clear.  Is this the same night of Jesus’ birth, or is it a year or two later?  Is this the manger scene, or are Mary and Joseph living in a home in Bethlehem?  What is the nature of the star?  Are the Magi kings or priests?  Are they from Arabia or Persia?  How many wise men are there?  3 or 12?

We know what tradition says.  The Magi were searches of the stars, astrologers, who were also members of a hereditary priestly class among the ancient Medes and Persians.  The term ‘Magi’ means they were experts at interpreting dreams.  Tradition says that they themselves were  Kings and names them Melchoir, Balthazar, and Gaspar.  Whoever they were and whatever their exact profession, we know they were two things, seekers of truth who looked to the heavens and pagans.

Their coming was foretold. “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts, the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay Him homage, all nations shall serve Him” (Ps 72:10-11). Isaiah also prophesied the gifts: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).

There are some details that are perhaps more subtle but important.  First, remember the Magi’s interaction with the one we learned about during Advent, Herod the Great.  Here was the tyrannical leader who was in bed with the Romans.  The one thing he feared was losing his power.  In the twilight of his years, which in this story he is in, he became unusually paranoid about everything.  Sons and wives were terminated.  Everyone around him was on edge.  And here are these Magi, Matthew makes a point of saying three times that they were from the East, who perhaps represent a threat from the Eastern lands not occupied by Rome who could threaten Herod’s power.  When Matthew says that ‘all Jerusalem’ was disrupted by the Magi, he has in mind the religious powers who rule in Jerusalem, who aligned themselves with Herod for their own protection.  This powerful man was threatened by a baby boy.

What is more subtle but important from the story is the way the three itty bitty people, Joseph, Mary and Jesus are protected, over and against the power of Herod.  One writer say this:
‘Jesus is just a little child.  He has no royal courtiers to care for him, no military guard to defend him.  He has no palace or army…This vulnerable, humble little claimant to Israel’s throne will be threatened by the conniving tyrant, Herod.  Who will care for the little future King?  Who will protect him?  How can he possibly survive to bring about those roles prophesied for him?…No aspirant to the throne could hope to compete with Herod–especially one so vulnerable as the infant Jesus lying helplessly in the arms of a young, peasant mother and protected only by a lowly, unproved father from the insignificant town of Nazareth.’

The obvious but important reflection is that God was with and in these events from start to finish.  It was God’s will that Jesus be born of a peasant woman and protected by Joseph.  It was God’s will that Jesus be brought into this world in that small place in that time of history.  It was God’s will that not a hair of Jesus’ head be harmed in all of these events.

It is easy, in the face of suffering and pain, to forget who is in charge.  It is easy to forget that he’s got the whole world in his hands.  I remember singing that song in a chapel service in the state hospital in Austin Texas one summer.  One of the older ladies after singing ‘he’s got the whole world in his hands’ yelled out, ‘He’s got a job!’

Indeed he does, but nothing would stop his Son being born, not Herod, not any power or principality, not the Devil himself.

In 1896, this parish began in a woman’s house.  This parish existed initially as a Sunday School class for kids in one woman’s living room.  Through many difficulties and many priests, our church became a parish in 1927 under Dr. Robert Russell.  He eventually built this church at this location in 1941, and it was added on to in 1960.  Dr. Russell was a theatrical man who was a one man show.  All of the lights in the church would be turned down (there were no windows then) save one, this one over the pulpit.  He would give a rousing sermon on healing and the human potential (ironically he was a more Zorastrian–like the wise man–than Anglican).  He had a huge following in his heyday and this parish averaged 500-700 on a Sunday during the 1950s.  Fr. Russell retired.  The next rector died in the alley; the rector after him got a fever that left him incapacitated, the next rector fell into sin, and here I am, only the fifth rector of this parish.

The first Sunday of Advent was my fifth anniversary as your rector and it has been a joy and it also has been difficult.  We have seen our ups and downs, we have seen people come and go, we have not achieved the growth that we wanted, but I think we are more spiritually healthy than we have been in a long time.  But why do I tell you all of this?  What difference does it make?

If God wanted this parish taken out, he could have done it many times.  We’ve seen lots of years and lots of tears.  But if God has a plan for us, and I believe he does, he will not abandon us.  This is not what I had intended to say this morning, but what I believe God wants to convey to us.  If he can orchestrate the incarnation, he can handle this parish.  He can more than handle it, he can mold it and make it despite our past, despite our denominational foibles, despite ourselves.  This is God’s church and it has been for 112 years through heresy, arrogance, misconduct, yes, but also through faithful ministries and faithful people–through names and lives we have written down but will never know.  There does not have to be a church on 1st and Colorado.  But here is.  And he has called us to this time and to this place and he will protect and lead us to a future of his designing.  Many like to point back to Fr. Russell’s era as Epiphany’s high point, but I prefer to look back to the beginning.  A Sunday School class in a living room.  In that kind of context you think only of what the possibilities are, you look at the children in front of you and you dream about what could be.  There is no worry about buildings and budgets, only God’s purpose.  We have a building and a budget, what we need to restore is the dream.  The possibilities, and really they are endless.  We could never grow as fast as our population.  There are more kinds of people to bring the gospel to within a two mile radius of our building than there have ever been in the history of this parish.  Forget about what it is ‘supposed’ to look like.  God has brought us to this place and protected us and provided for us, and he has purpose that is beyond anything we can ask or imagine.  Children.  Youth.  International ministries.  Building families and marriages.  Teaching and preaching the faith.  Powerful worship.  But most importantly, Jesus.  With Christ all things are possible, without him were just one more small church in a dying denomination.  But with him?  Jesus’ incarnation changed the world and continues to do so!

Lastly, look at those Magi.  What has defined them for 2000 years are those three gifts that they bring.  The best the East can offer.  St. Augustine rightly reflects on the meaning of the gifts, whether or not the Magi were even aware of what they were doing.  Gold for royalty; incense for worship at the altar; myrrh for anointing the dead.  Jesus the King, Jesus the priest, and Jesus who gives his life, the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’

The Magi have been defined by the gifts; by their desire to bring Jesus the best their cultures had to offer.  More than wise men, more than Magi, more than three kings, they are the first gift-givers to the king of kings.

You remember O. Henry’s story The Gift of the Magi.  It is about a poor couple struggling to make ends meet and who don’t have enough to buy gifts for each other.  Eventually, the woman sells her greatest treasure, her hair, to buy her husband a gold chain for his greatest treasure, the watch that had been his father’s and grandfather’s.  The twist in the story is that the husband has sold his gold watch to buy his wife a set of tortoise shelled combs for her beautiful hair.  It is a touching story, and an important definition of giving and self-sacrifice.

But it is O.Henry’s commentary on the story that is interesting to me.  He says:
‘Here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.  But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said of all who give gifts are the wisest.  Of all who give and receive gifts, they are the wisest.  Everywhere [gift-givers] are the wisest.’

He calls it the gift of the Magi because it is the givers of the world who give to the great King, Jesus.  The givers are the wise men of our world.

I witnessed an Epiphany moment on Christmas Eve.  We had an angel tree for our refugee kids who worship with us.  We had a list of wants and a list of needs for all of them.  I was a bit worried that there would be some left out.  But every name was taken and both lists were filled–and them some.  There were gifts beyond any of our expectations and there were new bikes for each and every one of the kids.

I have to admit, my first response was, no, this is too much.  We don’t need to give this much.  Then I realized that there is never too much.  The Magi gave their best.  Epiphany did too!  When you give in the name of Jesus, it is never too much.

We don’t need to look back and pine over the various struggles of our parish.  We simply need to become like the Magi, givers of our best.  The Lord gave us everything.  We simply give back. And this is more than money by the way.

Here is an Epiphanytide challenge for you, and Epiphanytide is only a month this year.

You all have relationships with friends and loved-ones and I bet not all your needs get met do they?  Here is one challenge–rather than obsessing about whether or not our needs are being met, let’s see if we be first to meet the other person’s need in our families and in our parish family.  One month is all I’m asking for.  Don’t keep score, just put that other person first, and of course it has to go both ways.

Church life ought to be the same.  You give without expecting anything in return.  There is in the Benedictine Tradition a vow, a promised discipline of chastity and obedience and also–the vow and discipline of Stability.  A Benedictine monk promises to stay in his community for the rest of his life.  Churches need that kind of discipline.  There is a loyalty there that says, ‘I’m here in this community for the long haul.  I will give without asking anything in return.  I am not a customer, but a part of the body.’

Giving does not end with Christmas and the idea of giving was for us to give back to others in the name of Christ, to bring gifts, in essence, to Jesus, for that is what the wise men were doing.  Can we do this since we are called Epiphany and defined by the story of the Magi?