I’d like to start this morning by passing around the offering plates. Be not afraid! We aren’t taking up two offerings this morning. And we’re not moving the collection of gifts to a different place in the service. (Out of curiosity, which of those things would cause greater distress? Let’s do some research! Let’s start by taking up two offerings. Ready, set, GO! 🙂
So, why pass the offering plates at the start of the sermon if it’s not to change the order of the service or to add another collection? Today, with this first go ‘round of the offering plates, we aren’t going to give; we’re going to receive. Don’t get excited! We aren’t receiving money. We’ll be receiving something else.
Today, we celebrate Epiphany, the time when we retell the story of the magi bringing gifts to the toddler Jesus. Most nativity sets include the magi at the manger. While it’s nice to have all that ethnic, religious, and economic diversity represented at Jesus’ birth, in Matthew’s narrative, the magi come later. Note that they enter “a house” to see Jesus, not a stable.
(Back in Georgia, we lived near a church with a large front yard. Every year when they put up their life-size wooden cut-out nativity set, the magi were set up on the edge of the property, a long distance from the manger. Every few days or so during Advent and Christmas, the magi would move just a little closer to the manger. Were we in Woodstock, Georgia, this morning, outside that church, we’d see a manger scene with all the cast of characters, including the magi. It does my little liturgically correct heart good!)
The Epiphany story is familiar. Wise people from the East see a star. Somehow, the star’s appearance reveals that a ‘child has been born king of the Jews.’ The magi journey westward until they come to Jerusalem. While there, they ask Herod–the de facto king of the Jews–where the baby born king of the Jews is.
Herod’s scared…and because Herod’s scared, the people are scared. He calls together his wise people and asks what the prophecies say about the location of such a birth. The wise people say, “Bethlehem.” Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him after they’ve made their visit.
When the magi depart Jerusalem, the star they’d been following still twinkles brightly…it continues leading them on…until it stops over the place where the child is. Matthew tells us that when the magi “saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
The part of this story we remember best happens now. “Opening their treasure chests, they offer the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Ah, yes. The magi’s gifts…. inspiration for our own generous giving, right?
Well, yes. But…
Have you ever thought about why the magi did what they did? Why did they give? Why did they travel so far and so long with such precious gifts for a child of another nationality, a child they didn’t know? In our eagerness to focus on the gifts given by the magi, it’s easy to gloss over the gift received by the magi–the star…a sign of hope, a sign of promise, a sign of their connection to something bigger than their own small worlds, a sign that, as the Dalai Lama says, “we are all same human being.” A sign that we’re all connected.
The magi gave–they gave joyfully–because they had received the gift given to them.
How do you feel about giving? It’s a dicey question to ask at budget time. But I’m your pastor. It’s my job to ask dicey questions….so, how do you feel about giving? If giving is a joy for you, terrific! You have permission to check out of the sermon momentarily and bask in the joy.
If giving isn’t such a joy for you….if giving makes you feel resentful (then guilty for feeling resentful), might it be because what your spirit most needs right now is to receive? (The happy people just checked back in. 🙂
We give a lot. This congregation gives a lot…money, time, talent. Service in the wider community. Contributions in the work of justice. You all have had to give a lot the past several years through all the transitions that have happened here at FCUCC. As we say our goodbyes to Kevin today, we’re aware that the transitioning continues. This community has asked for many of your gifts and you have given them–faithfully, extravagantly. And because you have, this community is strong and much more vibrant than it would have been without your many gifts. As your pastor, I am deeply grateful for the gifts of every person in this congregation.
That said, it’s important to acknowledge “giver’s fatigue.” Sometimes, if we give and give and give without taking time to receive, our giving becomes perfunctory, routine, even grudging. When the epistle writer said that “God loves a cheerful giver,” they meant it. God loves cheerful givers…because God understands that joyful giving acts us into wellbeing. Grudging giving? Grudging giving makes us grumpy.
Much will be asked of us in the coming year, especially here at FCUCC. In addition to our regular ongoing financial commitments, we’re also making some badly needed capital improvements. Though a third of the needed funds already have been promised–Yay!–we’ll need the other two thirds to complete the work, including refurbishing these beautiful stained glass windows.
We won’t be asked to give only money, though. As we live our way through our transitions, we’ll be asked to offer service as well. In coming weeks, you’ll hear more about our newly organized ministry teams and opportunities for service. Stay tuned for that.
This is an active congregation. We have lots of folks who still work. We also have lots of folks who are retired. I read an interview once with a woman who recently had retired from teaching. She said that when she was working, people at church constantly asked her to do things. Because of her heavy work schedule, she wasn’t able to say yes to much. She looked forward to the day when she could retire and do more work for the church. Then she retired. The minute she retired, the requests for service from her church dried up.
We won’t make the same mistake here that that retired teacher’s church made! All of us will be asked to continue serving and to serve anew in this coming year.
Before we discern what our gifts to the church this year will be, I invite us to take a moment to receive. Cue the offering plates.
I’ve recently learned about this newish Epiphany Sunday tradition. You might have experienced it before. The offering plates contain stars. Each star has a word printed on it. (Thanks to Terry Kaesar for the print work!) You’re invited to close your eyes and pull out one star. Let the star choose you. Here’s the invitation. The invitation is to let that word guide you the coming year. Put it on the refrigerator, in your Bible…make it your Facebook profile picture….The invitation is to keep the word in front of you this year and let it guide you.
It’s just an invitation. Feel free to recycle it or use it as a bookmark. But if you can, receive the gift of this star. Let it nurture you. Let it surprise you. Let it lead you to God-with-us in more profound and practical ways. Before the onslaught of requests for giving–and yes, they will come–give yourself the gift of simply receiving.
So, settle in, say “hello” to this moment, breathe in God’s love, breathe out God’s love…and prepare to receive this gift to you. (Silence)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2019