This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 5, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The Revised Common Lectionary, Christmas 2A: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Psalm 84; and Matthew 2:1-12. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
Very recently in the church office mail there was this small envelope addressed to me personally — the address has been typed out on a separate sheet of paper, cut therefrom, and glued onto the envelope. There is no return address and the postmark is a Cleveland, OH, cancelation. Inside there was no personal note of any kind, just a page torn from the last quarter’s Forward Day by Day devotional. One side, as you can see, has been scribbled all over; clearly not the side I am supposed to read. The other is the meditation for October 30, 2013, which begins:
Have you ever suffered because you sat through a really boring, abstract, incoherent, and disconnected sermon? Most of us have. Believe it or not, some people report that after enduring something like that, they decide never to go back to that particular church or any church at all. Sermons can make or break some people’s relationship with the church.
(The entire meditation can be read at Forward Day by Day.)
I have to be honest — my first reaction on receiving this was to think, “Well, that’s not something I wanted to get!” And immediately I was reminded of one Christmas when our children were quite young.
Our family tradition is to wait until Christmas morning to open our packages, so even if we’d been to the Midnight Mass we would rise early to see what Santa had brought. On the Christmas I recalled, our daughter rushed down the stairs from her second-floor room to the tree set up in our first-floor den and tore open the largest of her gifts, ripping to shreds the wrapping paper with obvious excitement. However, when she saw what was under the wrapping her expression changed to disappointment and she cried out, “That’s not what I wanted!” I don’t remember what she had wanted; I don’t even remember what we had given her. But I remember that reaction.
It got me to thinking about the reasons we give things to one another, the how of it and the why of it. What is the “theology of gift giving?” The gifts of the wise men to the Christ-child help us to explore that question.
The first element of such a theology would be the recognition that the giving of gifts is perfectly acceptable! There are some who teach that it is not, but we have plenty of examples in Scripture including, of course, the very story we are told in today’s gospel reading of the visitation of the Magi. More basically, we have God’s own example starting with the gift of life to plants, animals, and human beings as described in the Creation stories and exhibited most clearly in God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ. Generosity and charity are fundamental to an active Christian faith. Giving is the very thing that defines our belief: God-made-human gave himself entirely so that we might be free to give ourselves entirely back to God. As James said, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17, NRSV) Gift-giving, in a sense, is the purpose of the Incarnation, so it is something strongly encouraged.
The second element of a theology of gift giving is that giving gifts allows us to be ministers of grace, the free and undeserved help of God. The gifts of the wise men were symbolic: the hymn “We Three Kings” lays out in verse what these are. Gold is a symbol of kingship, frankincense (used for incense in worship) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death. (By the way, did you know that that hymn is quintessentially Episcopalian? It was written by John J. Hopkins in 1857 for a Christmas pageant at General Theological Seminary, the Episcopal Church divinity school in New York City.) In other words, they are symbolic of the full grace and mercy of God incarnate in Jesus. Every gift we receive, especially those from God but really from anyone, is a demonstration of God’s grace because, after all, grace is undeserved. How many times have you opened a present and sat there with the gift still in the box, looking at the giver with eyes and thinking to yourself, “What done to deserve this?” That question, of course, is rhetorical. The answer is “Nothing.” Gift giving is a form of grace by which we imitate the behavior of God and model the character of God.
The third element of a theology of gift giving is that it give us opportunity to display the love of God. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians. (2 Cor. 9:7, ESV) And, of course, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16, NRSV) Every gift should be a reflection of that love. If a gift is a real gift it is given with no thought of return. It’s not about starting an endless series of gift exchanges. It’s not about buttering someone up. It’s not about impressing someone or trying to get someone to do something for you. A real gift is an act of unconditional love, with no demands, no hints, no requirements of any return. Love, as Paul reminds us in the First Letter to the Corinthians,
is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. (1 Cor. 13:4-6)
Our gift-giving character should be one of genuine love. By giving a gift, we are symbolically recalling the gift of Christ for our salvation because “God so loved the world.”
The final element of a theology of gift giving, the element to which the first three point, is that it is relational. When the Magi encountered the Christ-child, they worshiped him: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” Worship is an expression of relationship at its deepest. However we define the word worship, it has its center in how we relate to God; it is the very reason, Scripture tells us, that we were created.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite poets is the African American James Weldon Johnson. At funerals, I often use one the poems from his collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Another poem in that book is entitled The Creation; it explores this truth of our creation. The poem begins —
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”
The poem continues, as Genesis does, detailing the creation of earth, the seas, the plants, the animals . . . and then goes on —
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”
Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
“Like a mammy bending over her baby . . . .” We are created for relationship — relationship with God and relationship with each other. Like the gift giving of the Magi, that’s what our gift giving to one another is all about. It is a tangible expression of relationship; although gifts are given out of love with no expectation of reciprocation, they do provoke a response. They are relational, and in the way we relate to each other, especially in our giving of gifts to each other, we exhibit how we relate to God.
I’ll be honest. I was upset by this anonymous gift. But in the end I’m grateful for it because it is a reminder of this most important element of the theology of gift giving, this relational aspect. After that rather brutal opening paragraph, the Forward Day by Day meditation examines what it calls “Jesus’ methodology” of preaching by story-telling and then concludes, “In spite of all of our media gadgets, communications systems, and technological tools, we still need to truly perceive, listen, and understand.”
My mentor, the late Fr. Karl Spatz, taught me to think of a sermon as a conversation and as a gift. A sermon is not a lecture and it has many participants. Preaching is grounded in community, and like gift giving is relational. Preaching is not me or any clergy person standing in the pulpit telling you what we think that you should hear. A sermon is an exploration of the things we all struggle to understand, the troubles we all have to deal with, the things we all try to do better, the joys we all celebrate. A sermon is a priest’s prayerful and considered reflection upon these things, offered humbly as a gift to the gathered community. The congregation’s part in the conversation is to receive the gift and, as the meditation says, make the effort “to truly perceive, listen, and understand.” That may sometimes mean that we continue the conversation at a later time, perhaps through notes like this one — but we can only really continue the conversation that if I know who you are . . . .
When all is said and done, any gift giving (including any preaching) is an imperfect thing. It is an imperfect thing that seeks the perfection of the one true gift, the gift of Jesus for the salvation of the world. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.