Gifts | 3 January 2016 | Epiphany

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Speaker: Chris Pedersen

Like many of you may have experienced in the waning hours of your 2015, questions start to abound about any New Year’s resolutions you are going to try and implement in your life for the upcoming year. As I was having this conversation with friends, I realized that many of their resolutions just didn’t work for me. The first idea that was presented to me was getting a gym membership to stay in shape…I mean, I can really only use like 4 machines properly, the four leg machines. But I guess every day could be leg day! The next idea was to read more books. For most people, this might be a wonderful idea. Just not for this seminary student. This past semester for my 5 classes I ordered 22 books. And I work in a library. I probably spend an unhealthy amount of time either with books or talking about books.

So my original New Year’s resolution was to drink less coffee… After two days of 2016, I can say with confidence that this resolution is going poorly and will continue to go poorly. As soon as I said those words out loud to someone of this resolution, I knew it wasn’t going to go well… like… at all. In fact, there is a good to fair chance that this entire sermon was prepared on a coffee-induced level of concentration. Coffee is my drink of choice at any time of day. I had someone recently ask me what my favorite coffee was and after thinking about it, I remembered when I was in Israel this past summer there was this coffee shop in Jerusalem that won that prize. As I was walking down the nice modern street of Yafo, in the Jewish area of Jerusalem, I smelled this amazing smell coming from a nearby store. I looked up, and the name of the store was ‘You Need Coffee.’ I mean, they weren’t wrong and I wasn’t about to disagree with them. I ended up spending over an hour in the shop talking to the barista and enjoying this really uniquely flavored coffee. The barista spoke amazing English. I remember the barista asking me how I was enjoying my time in Israel and if there was anything that was surprising to me. I answered her that the kind of generous hospitality and welcome that I had received was amazing and unexpected. I had traveled to Europe twice before but had never felt so welcomed as I was in Israel and Palestine. She was very surprised when I said that I had been so well received by both the Israelis and Palestinians. So I began to tell her about my interesting experience.

While in Israel and Palestine, there was this very strange phenomenon that occurred that no one else on this trip had foreseen. I was given lots of free stuff. Almost everywhere we went. I was given free pop, a Quran, cherries, a CD of an up and coming street artist, and even a replica icon that was inlaid with gold leaf that was priced at 40 dollars. For free. Thing is, no one else on the trip was getting this treatment. Just me. It quickly became evident that my disability was viewed as something much different in this society, I still don’t quite know why they did that and it was probably a different reason for each person that extended these random gifts to me.

Maybe the most memorable experience I had of receiving something for free was actually when I was in Bethlehem. We had just left the Church that claims to be where the wise men had found the Christ laying in a manger. As we were leaving this church, a local older man was trying to sell Nativity scenes made out of olive wood. He was asking 5 American dollars for two of them. He didn’t have an actual stand but was rather just trying to sell what he had in a bag. Street vendors have been taking a huge hit in the past year due to the decrease in tourism because of the rising fears of ISIS presence in the Middle East. This means that vendors are under even more pressure to sell items because they need to try and move inventory to the few people that do walk past them. Knowing this, many of us on the trip had been able to haggle with the various vendors to get some pretty stellar deals. But some vendors are struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families.

I decided pretty quickly that I only wanted one and only had a one dollar bill or 100 dollar bills because I had been unable to convert money for a few days. So in trying to haggle with him, I offered him the one dollar for one of the nativity scenes. He quickly said yes and I handed him the dollar. As he was handing me the nativity scene, he realized that I was not grabbing it like most other people would have and this is when things got interesting. He gave me my dollar back. I will never forget the words he said to me because I was not expecting them in the slightest. After watching me oddly try and grab hold of the nativity scene he said. “Oh. Here. Take dollar back. Gift. From me.”
I had absolutely no idea how to respond. I knew it was because he recognized that I had a disability, but it still did not take away from the fact that the man I had just lowballed, was now just giving it to me for free. I ended up thanking the man for the gift and had to quickly continue walking to keep pace with the group.

So over the course of Advent, especially when reading the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, I was drawn to this imagery of the wise men bringing gifts to this newborn child because of my own experience I had when in Bethlehem.

What is it about giving something away to someone that is so magical or unnatural? Christmas has come to be known as a holiday where we surround ourselves with everyone we love and give them presents while enjoying our time with them. This tradition of giving presents is said to have started to help remind us of the gifts that were brought by the wise men to Jesus. But why would these wise men actually go this far out of their way to bring gifts to this baby who was rumored to be the next king? It seems very unlikely that a boy born in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem would rule like the kings of old. But if we look to the Hebrew Bible, this is almost always exactly what had happened. The most unlikely individual was chosen by God to do something spectacular, even if from a humble beginning. Some examples are: The younger brother Jacob tricking the older brother Esau for the blessing. The story of the unlikely hero of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Or even David, the small and youngest son, rising up to challenge Goliath. It seemed that whoever and wherever God wanted to use someone, it happened. So I guess the likeliness of the next King being born in such a humble way was actually a perfect entrance into this world. And the wise men were not about to miss their opportunity to welcome him into this world like Psalms 72 says the ancient Kings did for Solomon. May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

From the beginning, much was expected of Jesus. This grand entrance was to pave the way for something much greater than any of the wise men could have expected. Psalms 72 says that these kings welcomed the new Israelite King in such a way because he was to deliver the needy, the poor, and the helpless and he was to have pity on them too. But in all of this, when judgement was passed, it would be done with righteousness and justice. That’s a lot of pressure.

But in being Christians, similar expectations have been placed on Christ’s followers. Perfection no, but excellence yes. Don’t worry, grace and time are also both factors of this expectation of excellence. When reading Psalms 72, if we change the word ‘he’ to ‘we’, to signify how the body of Christ is supposed to interact in this world with their neighbors, a few examples would read like this. “May we defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy. May we be like the rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. For we deliver the needy when they call, the poor, and those who have no helper.”
It sometimes may be difficult to read a passage and understand how it is to affect our lives in the 21st century, but if we recognize that the life that we are trying to live in to is supposed to resemble the kinship that Jesus Christ was expected to live in to, we get to see just how impactful our faith is supposed to be on this hurting world.

We have spent this season of Advent discussing Barriers and Thresholds that detain us from achieving relationships of peace and love with our neighbors. The wise men that came from afar to bring the new King gifts, also came to break down these barriers of difference, even back then. They were trying to foster right relationships with this newborn child and future king, and in doing so brought gifts as a sign of this. Now, I don’t think the church has much frankincense, myrrh, or gold but we do have many gifts that we can bring to our neighbors. Not even necessarily gifts that need packaging or wrapped. But gifts of friendship, a kind word, a compliment, a hug, or forgiveness. These gifts are irreplaceable. These gifts are priceless. These are the kinds of gifts that this world lacks. These are the kinds of gifts that tear down barriers and thresholds. These are the kinds of gifts that Jesus Christ spent his entire ministry trying to make people understand. These are the kinds of gifts that change the world. 

Sure, we can tear down physical walls like the one in Israel and Palestine, but until people are also tearing down the walls in their heart that deter them from others, these large brick walls merely are physical manifestations of the walls internally too. They both must come down. How do we start doing this? By recognizing the humanity within each of us and also interacting with those that we have tried to separate ourselves from. The barista was absolutely amazed when I told her of the kindness I had received from the Palestinians. Her time spent with Palestinians had been only in very isolated cases, and were often very negative. Her hearing that they were being so overwhelmingly kind to me seemed to really catch her off guard. Everything she was hearing about the Palestinians was coming from a pro-Israel Jewish perspective. That perspective doesn’t make any room for sharing with the Palestinians and often reduces them to second class citizens or terrorists. That is why interfaith and intercultural dialogue, like the kind of work Joel talked about several weeks ago, is so important. Hearing the other is one of the first steps we must take in being with our neighbors.

These following words kept coming up again and again as I was preparing this sermon for the final week of Advent. Charlie Chaplin said these words more than 50 years before I was born, but the life-giving truth that he spoke in the 1940’s movie The Great Dictator, resonated a lot with me as I was working on this sermon. Hopefully they resonate with you too.
I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned human souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Charlie Chaplin’s words are still just as true for today’s society as it was back then. The good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful but we have lost the way.

We must be careful of loud voices that justify harm or injustice of any kind in this world. These voices are often sparked out of fear, much like that of the voice of Herod in the story. He was terrified of losing control and tried to trick the wise men. This kind of fear is the same fear that says all Muslims are terrorists, America should not take any refugees, and people who identify as anything other than straight have no place in the church. These kind of fear-driven statements are the kind that marginalize people into second class citizens: like that of the Palestinian people. Make people lie to everyone around them for fear of being called names or being excluded because of who they love and find themselves attracted to. These are the fears that keep men, women, and children trapped in situations that will only lead to suffering and death; like that of the Syrian refugees who will never be given a chance.

When we begin to understand this kind of selfish fear as a withholding of oneself from others, than nothing can come or go from that fear except more fear. We should not be seeking to keep ourselves isolated from anyone, but rather should be seeking to try and enter into relationships where gifts or love, patience, kindness, understanding, and peace can begin to flow. Yes, some people will not allow these various barriers to come down, but they should not be from within the church. Our mission is to be with our neighbors. Our mission is to be with others. For others. We should be for everyone in the name of righteousness and justice. Anywhere the Christian faith is used to marginalize or separate someone from being equal or from being loved, than it is not of God or of the kind of promise that the body of Christ is trying to fulfill in this world. Equality and love should flow freely from this body of Christ to all of our neighbors.

In closing, because the New Years’s coffee resolution was already doomed to fail, what I have decided on as my New Year’s resolution is that I am going to be more intentional about giving more gifts this year. Not necessarily the monetary kind or ones that can be assigned a value, but the kind that can only be valued by the individual receiving the gift. These are the best kinds of gifts anyways. The man who gave me the nativity scene is the one who can be thanked for this resolution. If I would have purchased it for a dollar, that’s all it would have been worth to me. But because he gave it to me as a gift, now it is priceless and means significantly more to me. I want to give these kinds of gifts in 2016. I want to give when it doesn’t make any sense and when someone least expects it. I want this life to be free and beautiful. I want to try to be an instrument of peace that helps to tear down barriers and thresholds. This is how we can turn foe to friend and neighbor to loved one. This is my hope for 2016 for myself, the Church, and ultimately the world. My hope for all of us is to give more priceless gifts.