Friday, January 11, 2013

Gifts overwhelming

Isaiah 40: 1-9; Matthew 2: 1-14

Earlier this week NPR did a story about post-disaster donations, how the desire to help can often overwhelm the very efforts to aid people in distress.  At my home church, Monroe Congregational Church, we've been collecting teddy bears and other huggable friends to give away to children affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Currently we have received over 2000 stuffed animals and more continue to arrive.  A good deal of them have been ferried out to social workers and other professionals who have been counseling these children--Sandy Hook and Newtown students and beyond.  But there are still hundreds hanging out in our fellowship hall, waiting for a place to go and a child to hug them.

When something this horrible happens, we want to do something.  We want to have a positive, tangible effect, make a difference, let someone know that we care deeply and that we hurt for them.  Sometimes, though, the line between someone else's pain and our own can become strangely blurred, our own spirit having not received all the healing it needed when we were the one in distress.  We begin to identify with the other's present sorrow, perhaps convincing ourselves that we 'know their pain'.  Even if our sense of self is healthy, we still cannot bear to imagine the horror of losing one's child to a suicidal gunman.  We want to reach out, open our hands and our hearts in compassion, DO something, anything.

The hard truth to accept is that we can only do so much, ease someone's emptiness and grief only up to a point.  The healing that may or may not come is between a person and their family, their friends, their faith community if they have one, their higher power if they acknowledge one.  We cannot enter that space without invitation, even with the best of intentions.  As a clergyperson, it has been my humble privilege to bear witness in that space and offer what I can.  Sometimes there are words, but more often than not, there are none to be had.  It's an icky place to be, making the flesh of our souls crawl.  Hence, we give to ease our own discomfort as much as to be of service to another.

Last Sunday we honored the story of the magi and their journey.  They too brought overwhelming, extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They too wanted to be a part of something life-shattering, life-altering.  Can the incarnation be anything else?  And before I go any further, I read this story as a story with a purpose, rather than as an event that actually happened.  The gospel writer of Matthew had an agenda: to convince Jewish brothers and sisters and to assure Jewish Christians that Jesus was the fulfillment of messianic hope and prophecy.  So when I speak of the magi, I do so as characters in a story, not as historical figures.

The classic interpretation is that these gifts are representational:  gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for anointing before burial.  The outlook is not good for baby Jesus; we all know how this story is going to end.  In fact, according to Matthew, toddler Jesus narrowly escapes death by moving to Egypt with his parents.  The rest of the littles in Bethlehem do not survive, so as to fulfill a gruesome prophecy in Jeremiah, which probably had more to do with Israel's exile in Babylon rather than a paranoid King Herod wreaking revenge over 600 years later.  I don't like 20/20 hindsight because it really isn't clear vision.  As usual, we see what we want to see.  I don't trust life when it shows up in a neat little package because more often than not, it's simply not true.  Life is messy and who knows why things happen the way they do.

But these gifts can still represent something that can give us a way forward, a journey to honor the life-shattering, life-altering events in our lives, whether they be painful or joyful.  These gifts are wastefully extravagant, prodigal in nature.  If anyone is wastefully extravagant, it's God, with all that unconditional love and forgiveness.  These gifts tell us about God, about God-with-us in Jesus and in all of us.

First, gold.  Gold is for today; not for storing up and stashing away but for sharing, for giving, for making the incarnation something real and tangible right where we live.  In the gospel of Matthew Jesus is recorded as saying, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  We can make a little heaven each day by what we do with our treasure.

Second, frankincense.  The basics in life are all about good smells.  Food cooking, bread baking, a fire on a cold night, a bath or hot shower, clean clothes, fresh breath; dark soil, the air right before rain, tomatoes, flowers, clean air.  We all are worthy of these things.  We shouldn't have to earn them.

Third, myrrh.  Unfortunately the meaning of this one doesn't really change.  We're all headed there.  None of us is getting out of this alive.  It's a reminder that we truly only have today.  And none of us deserves an ignominious death.  Imagine if we treated everyone's death the way we have begun to treat birth.

We can honor the painful journey of others by giving the gifts we have to those who need them, who live where we live, as well as those who live halfway around the world, and then send word of what was done in their name.  Light begets light and brightens the darkness, whether close-by or from afar.  Imagine, in your own distress, receiving a letter or email or tweet, that someone else's burden was eased in honor of you.  "Whenever you do this, remember me." 

We would be beacons, signaling that help is coming, love is on its way, and that hope can dispel any dark thought.  It might be a little murky at first.  Light may travel at a head-spinning speed but the darkness arrived first and hunkered down.  Nevertheless, the darkness did not and will not overcome it.  Dawn overwhelms even the longest night.  Arise, shine, for your light has come!

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