Happy Epiphany everyone and many blessings to my friend Teri who begins her second pastoral call tomorrow. Part of my work includes preaching the Sunday after a pastor leaves a position or the Sunday before a new pastor begins. Today I preached among her new church.
Although I don’t usually post my sermons, I want to honor my Aunt Frances. Aunt Frances sometimes asked me to offer grace at the Edmiston Reunion even though many of my loved ones belong to churches that don’t ordain women. And long, long ago, she gave me something for my Hope Chest.
“Future Gifts” – Matthew 2:1-12
In 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.
I grew up in a family with 20 Edmiston first cousins – and because our family was so large – we drew names at Christmastime. You know how that works: everybody’s name goes into a basket on individual slips of paper and each person draws one name, and you give a single gift to the person whose name you draw.
When I was nine years old, my cousin Dan Edmiston had drawn my name. Again – I was nine and Dan was a teenager, I think, and this is what he gave me: a small silver-plated tray. [Note to readers: I brought the tray with me and showed it to the congregation. Yes, I still have it.]
Actually I think this gift was chosen by Dan’s mother, my Aunt Frances. Did I mention that I was nine years old?
I opened this gift and I hope I declared exactly what my mother had taught me to say when I opened a gift: “Thank you. I love it!”
While most nine year old girls in the world got make-your-own jewelry craft sets and Little House on the Prairie books, I got a silver-plated tray. “It’s for your Hope Chest,” my Aunt Frances explained to me. And then, I had to ask my mother what a Hope Chest was.
At one time, especially in the South (where I grew up) and apparently in the Midwest (where many of you grew up), girls had Hope Chests – also called a Dowry Box – which was meant to fill with all kinds of things a young woman would need someday when she got married and set up her first home. You might put linens in it, or special dishware, or maybe even a silver-plated tray that – one day – you would use when entertaining guests for tea in your living room.
This was a future gift – something to hang onto which I would most definitely need in the future.
On this Epiphany Sunday, we member the story of the wise men who visited Baby Jesus, guided by a star. He was between the ages of newborn and a toddler. And they famously brought him three future gifts.
You’ve all probably heard the joke that “if the three wise men had been three wise women, they would have been asking for directions instead of following a star. And they would have brought practical gifts like diapers and teething rings and baby clothes.”
But this story is about “wise men from the East.” Although we commonly sing that there were three of them, the scripture never tells us that there were three wise men. We only know that there were three gifts, and it’s assumed that there must have also been three givers.
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.
These gifts seemed to be about as useful to a baby as a silver-plated tray was to a nine year old. But what made the givers wise was that these gifts were meant to be used in the future.
Gold was commonly a gift given to a king at his crowning. [Note: It’s interesting to consider that – although Mary and Joseph have always been considered poor – a sack or gold would actually have been a useful gift the moment they received it. Maybe it wasn’t “a sack” of gold. Maybe it was a few shavings of gold in a little pouch. We just don’t know. But perhaps they used this gold to pay their way to Egypt.
Frankincense – which would have come from the part of the world we call Yemen today – was a sort of aromatherapy, used in worship to fill the temple with a fragrance meant to enhance the mystery of God’s presence. Frankincense could have been a gift they used immediately too – nice to burn to cover up the smell if you’re living in a home full of farm animals.
But then baby Jesus was also gifted with Myrrh, of course, was commonly used as an embalming oil – surely a disconcerting gift from the parents’ point of view. Who knows whether or not Mary kept the myrrh? When Jesus really needed it, about 33 years later, it was provided by a trio of wise women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, along with other unnamed women at the tomb of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke.
This familiar story of the Wise Men from the East is actually points to a future that Mary and Joseph could not have imagined.
Here on the first weekend of 2013, we all face a future that we cannot fully imagine. Anything could happen this year. Some of you might fall in love with someone you haven’t yet met. Maybe you – or someone you love – will get a new job, a new home, or an unexpected opportunity. Any of us could come down with a sudden illness that threatens our very lives. Or maybe a rich relative will leave us a tidy inheritance. Who knows?
But one thing we do know is that – starting tomorrow – you will have a new pastor. And the future of this congregation is subsequently full of possibilities and wonder and hope and excitement. We have no idea what will happen under Teri’s leadership, but we trust in God that she has been called to cast a fresh vision and serve with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.
She will bring to you all manner of giftedness: solid preaching and tender pastoral care and good humor and faithful challenges. But she will be also provide you with future gifts – gifts you might not need at moment she gives them, but – God knows – you will need them in the days and years to come.
Many years ago, when serving in my former parish, I was visiting a very sick man – a pillar of our congregation – who suffering with the last stages of Parkinsons Disease. He had stopped speaking and could barely swallow. I would talk to him, but he wouldn’t talk back. I would pray for him, but he wouldn’t respond.
If you’ve ever visited a very sick person who cannot talk back to you or respond in any way, it’s not easy. You feel like you are talking to yourself. It’s as if nothing is making a difference and the person barely knows you’re in the room.
One day, I decided to read the 23rd Psalm to this sweet man, mostly because I’d run out of things to say on my own. And so, as I read to him, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . .” I noticed that his lips were moving, and I looked closely, and he was reciting the Psalm himself. There I was with my handy travel Bible, but D. was ever-so-quietly whispering the words himself, along with me.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Somebody long ago had taught him that Psalm. Maybe it was a Sunday School teacher or maybe it was his grandmother or maybe it was a pastor from his childhood. And – who knows – maybe he had complained about having to learn it. But it was a future gift: one day, he would need it. And I got to be there on that day.
Your new pastor is going to teach you what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She is going to help you learn how to articulate your faith – both in words and actions. She is going to help you carve out a vision that reaches lost and broken people who crave Good News.
And sometimes, you might wonder about these things she’s giving you. But please trust me when I remind you that some gifts are future gifts that you’re going to need.
- Maybe you’ll be at a church meeting and the person sitting next to you needs a word of hope.
- Maybe – years from now – you’ll find yourself in a situation when you’ll remember something Teri taught you in a class or through a sermon and it comforts you.
- Maybe – decades from now – you will be in the company of a person in need and you will see that person in a new way because of a vision Teri has cast.
A magi’s job in the First Century was to be a scholar and a priest. But clearly – sometimes – they brought future gifts to be used at a later time. A pastor’s job is to be a scholar and priest, to equip the saints for ministry, according to the Scriptures. And – by God’s grace – pastors also bring future gifts to the people they serve.
This is my hope for all of you in this New Year. May God feed you and refresh you through these gifts – and these gifts (the cup of salvation and the bread of life.)
And I’d like to offer up a final nod to my Aunt Frances. When she chose that gift for me that I opened when I was nine years old at Christmastime in the old family home in Mt. Ulla, North Carolina, she could not have possibly imagined that one day, that nine year old girl would be called by God to go to seminary, that one day she would be ordained to serve as Minister of the Word and Sacrament, and that eventually she would use that same silver-plated tray to make a point in a sermon she would preach in Palatine, Illinois.
We have no idea what gifts we have received today can do in the future. Thanks be to God for these good things. Amen.