The text of Cliff Davis’ December 28, 2014 sermon
Cliff Davis December 28, 2014
When I was growing up our church had some sort of Christmas pageant. I can’t remember a lot about it, but I remember that getting chosen to be one of the “three kings” was full of prestige – it was about the best role for which a young person could be chosen because you got all the fancy costuming AND you got to carry the precious present up to the manger. You were a king!
When I was much older and wiser – 18 – my college put together a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a clever adaptation of the Christmas story focused on the three kings, their journey towards Bethlehem, and their effect on a young boy with a lame leg. The kings were, of course, played by the best singers and were probably upperclassmen who had already paid their dues. As a freshman, I got to play a shepherd – just one in a flock of shepherds – and I envied those with the fancy costumes and big singing parts.
Now, when I really am older and wiser, I’ve had this chance to study the part of the Christmas story Larry just read for us and I find that my perspective about the story has really changed. I’d like to share some of that changed perspective with you this morning. I can’t bring a lot of theological study to my observations. Just as in previous times when I have stood in this pulpit, what I bring to this process is … me. One of my gifts is a pretty decent self-understanding and an ability to communicate it to you. I offer this gift this morning in hopes that I might stimulate a deeper self-understanding for some of you. Along the way I’ll offer three pieces of advice.
This story raises a number of questions, which I just have to ask, and then I want to take a look at gift-giving. First the questions: The verses Larry read this morning are the only Scriptural mention of the three kings, except it doesn’t say there were three and in this translation the name “Magi” is given to the gift-bringers. Luke doesn’t mention them in his Nativity story at all. And yet, in Christmas pageants throughout Christendom, these few verses always cause three kings to carry their precious gifts to the Holy family. Why has this little event become so prominent in our Christmas culture?
Why do we believe there were three? There are three named gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so, three gifts, three gift bearers? Makes sense, even if Matthew doesn’t tell us that. And why do we call them kings? The term “Magi” leans more towards describing wise or educated men, and we certainly want our kings to be wise men. Whether royal or wise, or both, the point of this image in Matthew’s Gospel is undoubtedly to demonstrate Jesus’ importance. Even as a newborn baby, helpless and dependent, these wise kings already knew this was an important birth, worth recognizing.
The gifts we learn about in this story are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why those three? And, a question that really bothers me, what happened to the gifts after the wise men went home? Joseph and Mary led a simple life and almost immediately after Jesus’ birth, according to Luke, they traveled, first from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and then to Nazareth. It’s about 75 miles all together, but that had to be a long way when walking, taking many days. Gold is heavy to carry; frankincense and myrrh, then as now, were expensive and might have been hard to protect from those who might want to steal it. Did they sell the last two? Did they use the gold to pay for their travels? It seems . . . sacrilegious to think they would have done anything except keep and treasure these important symbolic gifts, but that just seems highly unlikely. So many question we can’t answer.
What are we to make of this story? The Christmas story tells us that Jesus’ importance drove important people to bring him gifts. But it has to be more than that. We like to sing the song about the little drummer boy, who was poor and had no appropriate gift to give the king, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. The story of Amahl is the story of a little shepherd boy who uses a crutch because he is lame. When the kings, traveling to Bethlehem bearing gifts, stop at Amahl’s village, the only gift he can offer is his crutch. And in this feel-good story, the sincerity of his gift results in him being healed and able to walk without the crutch. These stories show that we idolize gift-giving; we hold it in high esteem.
Let’s delve into that more; let me focus for a few minutes on gift-giving more generally. Simplistically speaking, there are three parts to gift-giving: the gift itself, giving, and receiving. Let me start with the last of these, the easy part, gift receiving.
Receiving a gift is a wonderful experience! Someone gives us a gift and we accept it graciously and say “thank you.” We feel wonderful about it. . . . Speaking only for myself, I wish it were that easy. Secretly, I love getting gifts because somehow it validates me – I matter enough that someone is gifting me. But it is also embarrassing to admit that. Why do I need such validation? On the outside, receiving a gift makes me somewhat uneasy – “Do I deserve this gift? Do I deserve any gift? Does this gift mean now I have to give a gift in return? How do I react to best show my appreciation of this gift?” Neither Matthew, whose story we heard from today, nor Luke, from whom we hear the most detailed Christmas story, gives us any sense of how Mary or Joseph reacted to the gifts brought to their newborn son. Apart from the three Magi, we only have Mary’s reaction to the original news – Gabriel’s announcement of a great gift – when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it happen to me as you have said.”
It’s taken me a long time, but here is where I’ve come to in receiving gifts. When someone gives me a gift, they are giving me a part of themselves. I’ve come to believe there is only one possible appropriate response – “thank you.” It might sound like this – “Thank you for giving me such a special thing.” Or like this – “I am honored that you are giving me this part of yourself.” Any other words we say, any responses we offer other than “thank you,” are not appropriate, because anything else may demean the gift-giving. Even with Gabriel telling Mary she is about to receive such an extraordinary gift, she accepts graciously. Hers is a model from which we can all learn. My first piece of advice – accept gifts with grace.
What about the gift-giving side? We can make gift-giving really complicated. It is too often anything but straight-forward. Sometimes we give gifts because we think we should, because there is some debt to be paid or some sort of social convention to uphold. For example, we’re going to someone’s home for dinner and we have to take a gift because it is expected, or because they will judge us to be a poor guest if we do not bring a gift.
Sometimes we give gifts because we are trying to elicit some type of response from the recipient of our gift. Perhaps we want them to know we think they are important and want to get some similar affirmation back from them.
And yet, most often I think, people give gifts because we want to, because we are moved by some feeling to say, “You matter to me.” At times that can be a very important “you matter,” such as the Magi bringing gifts to Emmanuel, “God with us.” In the song, Little Drummer Boy, this little percussionist recognizes the importance of Jesus’ birth but all he can offer as a gift is the sound he draws from his drum, pa-rum-pa-pum pum. And in the story of Amahl, the selflessness of his gift-giving is rewarded by his leg being healed. Among many stories of Christian martyrs we have models of selfless giving and many of us strive to match that level of selflessness in our gifts.
I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I’ll finish the gift-giving side by simply saying this – Don’t overthink the giving of gifts. Don’t load it with all of your own baggage. If you are moved to give a gift, do so, looking for nothing in return. Simply take away the good feeling of giving such a gift in the same spirit that Amahl offers his crutch or the drummer boy his song – pah-rum-pa-pum pum. My second piece of advice – give gifts simply and with generosity.
Finally, to the gift itself. I wonder whether we all get too focused on giving the “perfect” gift? Amahl gives an idealized gift. His crutch had meaning, not because the Christ child needed it, but because he himself needed it – he had trouble walking without it. Giving it away was giving away an important part of himself. We have many models for that kind of giving – Jesus giving up his life on the cross for us is the pre-eminent model – and that reinforces the idea that a gift we give has to be that important. In this idealized model, giving away anything but our life isn’t ever enough.
Well, what about the gift I received from my nine-year-old granddaughter this week? It is a little tree ornament, a miniature chalkboard with a string attached for hanging. On it she wrote “Gpa” in chalk (for “Grandpa”) because there isn’t room for more letters. It came in a plain paper bag that she had carefully decorated with markers and glitter. Except for the letters on the chalkboard, it was similar to 12 other bags she passed out, each with the shortened names of family members. The ornament, the bag, and the chalk together maybe cost $.50. Not as expensive as frankincense or myrrh, and certainly not brought to our house by a king. Yet, as the receiver, it is one of the most precious gifts I received because I know that she invested herself into it – picking it out, deciding what to write, decorating the bag, and doing so in the context of a whole set of presents. Her effort and intent – those were the gifts she gave me.
How often have you stopped yourself from giving some small piece of yourself to someone else because you think it isn’t enough? How often have you stopped yourself because you’re not sure it’s the right gift? Because you’re not sure it will matter?
Maybe what you can give is to visit Leta Pealer, someone who used to sit in these pews with her husband every Sunday but now sits homebound, alone. Maybe what you can give is to finish quilting the pieces Marge Risko assembled years ago and never got to finish. Maybe what you can give is two hours every other week to help prepare and serve hot meals to those who are hungry. Maybe what you can give is cookies for fellowship because you are a talented cookie baker. And these are just church examples. In our wider lives beyond the church we have so many opportunities to give of ourselves to others, but the only gifts that matter are the ones we actually give. My third piece of advice – give gifts of yourself. Those things that seem easiest or most natural to you are the things that will matter most to others.
These are the simple gifts – gifts of ourselves, given freely, and accepted with grace. Amen.