Journey and Gifts (beings at 24:16)

January 5, 2020

Series: January 2020

Category: Epiphany Sunday

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Matthew 2:1-12

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

6   ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 

          are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 

     for from you shall come a ruler 

          who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

 Journey and Gifts

          On a simple level, this iconic story of the magi is about two things:  a journey and gifts, two primary metaphors for the spiritual life.  We speak about faith journeys, spiritual journeys, all the time.  I did an entire dissertation on pilgrimage, which is simply a physical embodiment of the spiritual journey.  Similarly, we talk a lot about gifts.  We speak of life as a gift, of the importance of cultivating gratitude for our daily gifts, and we have a tradition centered around the notion of God’s grace as a gift freely given.

          When I was in college, I recognized my journey was missing something, and maybe a gift was yet recognized.  I was engaged in the coursework, and I had friends, but I didn’t have any relationships that shared spirituality, and that had always been a part of my life.  So, as a senior—it’s never too late—I joined an ecumenical campus ministry group.  One weekend we went on a retreat, called, “The Road to Emmaus,” named after the biblical story in which the resurrected Jesus appears to some of his followers and walks with them on the road.  It’s only over time that they recognize Christ with them.  During the retreat, we heard peers share their spiritual journeys.  We had time for reflection and prayer, and we just had time – we even willfully turned in our watches (this was before cell phones) which created a certain kind of timelessness and spaciousness.  We wrote encouraging notes to one another.  The retreat helped us start to recognize how Christ might be present in our walks too.

          It was much later that I learned this retreat was a version of what’s called Cursillo, a retreat that many of you have had the chance to go on and found transformative.  By a show of hands, how many of you have made Cursillo?  Past participants have described Cursillo to me using words like welcoming, warm, restorative, fulfilling, joyful.  They talk of genuinely feeling God’s love.  We know that religion, spirituality, only take hold when grounded in experience.  Today, after the 10:00 service, you’ll have the chance to hear more about Cursillo, and I hope you avail yourself of the opportunity to attend or speak with those who’ve been before.

          In terms of gifts, I’ve noticed it’s hard for some to recognize the gifts around them.  I share that challenge.  Even harder, in a special way for high-achieving folks, is recognizing one’s self as a gift.  That sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes our drive comes out of a fundamental sense of feeling like we’re not enough.  We externalize our internal journeys with how we interact with the material world.  We also focus on the material.  When the magi journey to see the newborn Christ, we all focus on what they bring.  We can all name them-gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but it is their presence that is the true gift.  They journey across the world, show up in their power, wisdom, and privilege, and surrender it to this higher, yet lower, purpose. 

          It’s no wonder people feel as though they have nothing to offer.  We tell them so.  Our culture is strangely obsessed yet dismissive of the young.  Similarly, we patronize but don’t show true respect to our elders. There’s a sweet spot in the middle, but that’s the time when we must maximize our earning and there feels little time for anything else.  But, the time is never wrong; it’s never too early nor too late to recognize that you, imperfect and unfinished, are a beautiful gift given by God to the world.  As we recognize this hard to grasp truth it becomes easier, irresistible even, to share generously with those who need it.

          A few weeks ago, my spouse Sherri asked prayers for a man named Tom.  Tom and his wife and Sherri’s mom and her husband were friends.  When they each lost a spouse, they found each other, as friends so often do, in a new light.  They were together for years.  Tom and our now 7-year-old son Liam shared a special connection.  We nicknamed him “GrandTom.” Their relationship centered around T ‘n T…not dynamite--trains and trucks.  Tom was a train aficionado.  They’d watch on web cams interesting train junctions from all over the country.  A former trucker, Tom had meticulously-kept model trucks.  Each time we’d visit, he’d pull them out and teach Liam about the kinds he drove and the different types.

          Tom died the day after Sherri asked for prayers for an easy death.  We faced for the first time that conversation when you tell your child a grandparent has died.  We were direct.  I fumbled and spoke too much, but it was earnest.  I didn’t think he’d react much.  I lost a grandparent at the same time and I didn’t really have the emotional tools yet to do much processing.  At first, I thought the same would be so for Liam.  Then, after a long second, his eyes got big then the tears, then he collapsed into Sherri’s arms.  “What about the trucks?” he said.  This was his way of honoring the gift of their connection.

          And that’s the thing.  Tom knew he was dying and he knew he had one last gift to give on this earth, so while he still could, he meticulously packed up some of the trucks and he wrote Liam a letter, and sent it to us, with strict instructions to place it under the tree and not open it until Christmas, which he figured would come after he was gone.  I can tell you those trucks were every bit as special a gift as gold, and certainly frankincense and myrrh. 

          You see, we’re on a journey, a journey to recognize the gifts we have to offer.  It’s a journey that spans from the manger to the grave, and wouldn’t you know it even beyond.  Now that’s an epiphany.  Amen.