*Preached at Grace North Church by John R. Mabry on January 9, 2005.*
In Monty Python's Life of Brian, a version of our scripture reading is portrayed. It seems that Jesus and Brian, whose lives would intertwine throughout the film, were born in adjacent stables in Bethlehem. The film opens with a reverent scene in which the three kings kneel before Brian, and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Brian's mother is puzzled, but not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, accepts their gifts. She then shoos the visitors out of the stable, saying, "Don't bother about the Myrrh next time, all right?" Soon, of course, the Sages discover their error, burst through the door, and grab their misgiven gifts. They "bwusqely" throw Brian's mother to the floor and exit, carrying their gifts to the proper stable.
The Life of Brian is my favorite Python film, because, far from making fun of Jesus, who is treated respectfully throughout the film, it is a merciless critique of Christianity, which has been ripe for a good ribbing for a couple of millennia. I love the scene where the Pythons lampoon the factionalism of Christian denominations by showing Brian's disciples fighting over whether they should revere his gourd or his sandal. Such pointed satire comes fast and furious, and you blink at your own peril, for you might miss something.
Even the opening scene with the wise men contains a critique, though I'm not sure the Pythons intended it. When Brian's mother says, "Don't worry about the Myrrh so much next time," she echoes something the church has been saying to her children for some time, and unfortunately, is still fond of saying it.
Every one of us comes to the Christ child bearing gifts. Some of us come bearing gold, which is always eagerly accepted by any church. But some of us do not have gold to offer, but other gifts, many of them even more valuable than money could ever be. And most who do give some gold have additional gifts more expressive of who they really are. But it is a sad fact that many churches do not know what to do with these other gifts, do not appreciate them, and so, do not truly accept them. In rejecting them, they also reject the giver, with the result being that the most valuable gifts people have to offer go unreceived, and consequently, the giver simply stops giving. "Don't worry about the Myrrh so much next time, all right?"
One of our parishioners, Claire, told me that when she first moved into the area, she approached another church nearer to her, asking permission to practice on their piano. Now, as a pastor, if someone were to approach me with such a question, the first thing that occurs to me is not "this person wants something from us," but, "this person has talent and might be looking for a community in which to offer it." There is an evil little part of me that is so glad that church X passed on Claire's request, because as a result Claire has become a part of us, and has brought the gifts of her friendship and leadership to our community. And of course, she brought her musical gifts as well: she has become the music coordinator for the upcoming labyrinth service, and has single-handedly organized our "OFFERINGS" series, which is fast on the way to becoming the premiere showcase for musical healing ministries in the East Bay. Because of the Myrrh she brings, we as a church are able to give a gift to our city that would have been impossible other wise.
Now, the church has also been pretty selective about who it will accept gifts from. Oh, it will accept money from anyone-Jerry Falwell gladly accepted money from Sun Yung Moon for his University. Televangelists don't screen their donors to make sure that they only steal the pensions of properly CHRISTIAN old ladies-they'll steal from anybody. But if someone wants to offer a workshop for church members, or to tutor the children, or organize a music showcase, or some other gift deemed slightly odd, eyebrows are raised, and motives and doctrine will be soundly scrutinized.
The story of the Three Wise Men speaks to this tendency towards suspicion, for it is really a story about the tension between who human beings exclude and whom God includes. The Wise Men were not Jews, but gentiles, and even worse, they were Zoroastrians from Persia. The Jews had only a few centuries before been slaves in Persia, where the dominant religion was Zoroastrianism. Now, although the Jews absorbed a lot of theology from the Zoroastrians, and even honored some of their kings as just rulers, the memory of their captivity was, at the time of the birth of Christ, still a painfully recent one.
Many Jews felt that God's salvation was for the Jews alone, and gentiles were simply on their own. But the story of Epiphany reveals that God cares about the rest of us, too. Moses may have brought salvation to the Jews, but it is Jesus who brings it to the rest of us. The wise men, who by Jewish tradition, have no obligation or even the right to approach God, lay their gifts at the feet of the cradle, and asked nothing in return.
When the Swedenborgian Church sought to bring their gifts to the table at the World Council of Churches they were rejected for being too weird. Instead, they were granted "observer" status, but full inclusion seems unlikely. They were not doctrinally acceptable, after all, these Swedenborgians who honor the visions of an 18th century clairvoyant, who hold the radical notion that God may have things to communicate to us. Yet this odd little communion has gifts to offer that no other church has-experiences and perspectives that may bear the salvation of Christianity as a whole, but no one will take it seriously. It is, after all, odd. "Don't worry about the Myrrh so much next time, all right?"
Christians reject people's gifts not just because they cannot see the immediate value of them or because they distrust the giver, but sometimes because the gift itself seems weird.
For instance, my friend Jeff Gaines is pastor of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and he has a method of delivering sermons that might be deemed at bit "odd." Jeff came to his ministry after spending years as a professional dancer. Every now and then, instead of preaching a sermon with words, he throws off his vestments to reveal his leotards, and dances his sermon, usually to the extreme delight of his parishioners. His gift of myrrh is lovingly received.
This week our pledge cards went out in the mail. For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition, once per year we send out a form asking members to estimate what their gifts to the church might be for the next year, so that we can make an educated guess as to how to organize our budget and resources for the coming year.
One parishioner I spoke to this week, and whose permission I have to relay this story, was disturbed by the whole pledge card thing. I tried to explain, saying, "We do need to have some clue about our budget next year." She admitted she might be a little sensitive since she grew up in a congregation where they asked for money every time she turned around. "How many times have you heard a sermon on giving money to the church?" I asked. She just looked at me, which of course, meant that she hadn't. "And we only send these cards out once per year," I finished. But she still did not want to even look at it.
So I pressed the point and unfolded it. "Look," I said, "This has a space for pledging money, AND a place for giving of your time and talents. Nobody is asking for anything you don't have or don't want to give. Why don't you write down some of the time you plan to volunteer?" I think this parishioner is still in process with the whole pledge card thing, and maybe you are, too. But for myself, I am proud that in our parish the pledge cards have space for both gold AND myrrh. Because we can't survive as a community-in fact we wouldn't BE a community-without both of them.
Sometimes it is not the church that rejects our gifts, but we ourselves. Sometimes the gifts we have to offer don't seem acceptable even to us. But I would like to remind you that we are not saved in sections, but as whole people, warts and all. When we give ourselves to God, we are called to give our whole selves, not just those parts that we are proud of.
My friend Linda has been in evangelical churches for all of her life, yet she lives with a very painful secret. Unbeknownst to anyone in her church, she is a lesbian. But because she believes in her heart that being a lesbian is wrong, she is celibate, and in fact, believes that she herself is damned and will probably go to hell when she dies. Yet in spite of this, her love for God and God's people is so great, that she has given her life to the service of the church. She directs the choir, serves on committees, and is there anytime anyone has need of anything. She feels that God has rejected her, and that her community would likewise reject her if they knew, but she has rejected neither God nor her community. There is a great sadness in her story, and yet, heroism as well. I have tried to tell her that there are Christian communities that would embrace her with all of her parts, but until she is able to embrace all those parts herself, that particular form of salvation will be meaningless to her.
In our culture, the word "dog" is often used pejoratively. With apologies to our canine parishioners, I suggest we might for a moment speak of those parts we are less proud of as the things that "dog" us. Just as we invite people to bring their dogs to church, I invite you to bring the dog parts to church as well. I had a friend once, who, preparing to go out carousing, announced he was going to take his shadow for a walk. I would like to suggest that the church is a sanctuary, and as such it is safe space to take your shadows for a walk-so long as they are on a leash.
Finally, I would like to affirm that the local community is not always the only, or even the most appropriate place, to give our gifts. As we see footage of the devastation in Indonesia on the television, it has occurred to most of us that a portion of our gold might be best utilized there, helping the survivors begin the long and arduous process of putting their lives back together. And I encourage you to do so. Likewise, there are other ministries and non-profits that work tirelessly to make this world a better place. A portion of our gold and our myrrh is not misplaced there, either.
This is the only sermon I have ever delivered on giving. I can only recall one time in my ten years here, when Fr. Richard preached on the subject. So, at least it is not something we hear too much of. In the church I grew up in, if there was not enough in the plate after the offering, the preacher would admonish us, and send it round again! But we will have none of that, here.
And you will hear no one here saying, "Don't worry about the Myrrh so much next time," either. Remember the Christmas song "The Little Drummer Boy?" A boy comes before the Christ child, and is moved to offer a gift of his own, just as the wise men did. But he had nothing precious to give, or so he thought. So he simply did what he did best, he played his drum for the child, the animals kept time, and the child smiled at him. This story is good news for anyone who is a bit of a "different drummer."
In our parish we need both gold and myrrh to survive. And heck, if you have some frankincense, throw that into the mix as well. But don't give just because we need it. I am asking you to bring your whole self to this community, both shadow and light. Because having a community that can see and affirm your talents, who can welcome your essential self, is a gift to YOU. I hope that you will find this community safe space to share your whole self, to bring odd and unexpected gifts, and have them received in love. Because by bringing all that we are to the table, everyone is sure to be fed.
Don't worry about what is acceptable or unacceptable. This is a big table, and people will take just what they need. And when you find yourself pondering your pledge card this month, give due consideration not only to the gold, but to the myrrh as well. Giving money is a good and necessary thing. But to give yourself? That can be scary, and hard. But if we can truly be Jesus to each other, if we can smile at the drumming of the odd-well, that's not just good and necessary. That's DIVINE. Let us pray
Jesus, you received many odd gifts in your time. I mean, prostitutes washed your feet with their hair. That's pretty odd. Yet, you received it with the same grace with which it was given. Help us, in being your holy presence to this world, to receive one another's gifts with the same grace, reverence, and good will, however odd they may seem to us at first. For however hard we work to appear NORMAL, we are all odd, and the gifts we have to offer are often eccentric and not always initially welcome. Give us the courage to show up with all that we are, and the same courage to embrace one another with all our parts. Help us to forgive as we have been forgiven, to receive as we have been received, and to give as we have been given to. For you both received the wise men's gifts, and you WERE the gift. Help us to both give of ourselves and receive thee, even when it is scary or uncomfortable. For we ask this in the name of the giver, the gift, and the one who keeps on giving, this one God, whose generosity words are not sufficient to tell. Amen.