Friday, December 31, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday

This is it. I could tweak it some more, but I really would rather spend the time I have left preparing for the worship service and "getting into" the sermon than tweaking it. From the comments I've received (thanks, gang!) and from my own "gut feeling", I think it's pretty good work. Hopefully it will go over well.
Rev. W &H
Matthew 2:1-12
January 2, 2011
“What Gift Can We Bring?”

Three years ago, I was the pastor of a small, United Methodist congregation in Danville, Virginia. One of my members was a man named Homer. Homer was a “salt of the earth” kind of guy; the sort of person who would knock on the parsonage door and hand me a bag full of vegetables from his garden, the sort of person who had more spirituality in his pinky finger than I had in my whole body, the sort of person who everyone, family, friends, church members, and rookie pastors, admired and loved. That January, Homer had a rather severe heart attack. First he went to the local hospital, but after tests and consultations with physicians, he was transferred to Duke Medical Center, about 70 miles away. After a lot of discussions with surgeons and cardiologists, he and his family agreed that bypass surgery was his best chance for survival. The surgery was scheduled for the next morning, and his family called me that afternoon to let me know. I began making preparations to go down to Duke to be with Homer and to be with his family. I let my daughter’s day care provider know that I would be dropping her off as soon as the center opened at 6am, and made a “Plan B” in case I couldn’t be back by closing time at 6pm. I arranged for someone to come and let my dogs out in the middle of the day, because I knew I’d be gone a long time. I made sure that my daughter had enough bottles, diapers, and spare clothes to choke a horse. I laid out my clothes. I prayed. The next morning, I woke up at 4:30am. It was snowing in Danville and there was already a thin layer of snow on the ground. I got ready, got my daughter ready, dropped her off at daycare, and began my journey. It was snowing for the first 20 or so miles of my drive and raining for the last 50 or so miles. The main road between Danville and Durham is a two-lane country road and not a lot of fun to drive in early-morning January darkness, with bad weather on top of that. But I kept driving, determined to make it to Duke, determined to be there during Homer’s surgery.
What was propelling me down the road was not necessarily pastoral duty, although that was certainly a small aspect of it. After all, it’s part of the role of the pastor to be present in times of crisis, and I would have made that drive for anyone in my congregation. However, the reason I was determined to drive those 70 miles through snow, and rain, and darkness, the reason I was determined to make it down to Duke, was not a sense of duty, but a relationship with the man who, even as I was driving, was being prepped for a major and very risky surgery. Over the 18 months I had been his pastor, I had become very fond of Homer. He had opened his heart and his life to me, had taught me a great deal about life and faith and ministry, and was really a bright spot in what was a difficult time in my life and ministry. Homer had embraced me as his pastor despite my youth, despite my inexperience, and despite the mistakes I made as a result of both that youth and inexperience. He loved me in spite of all my faults and failings. And so I drove down to Duke in the snow, in the rain, in the darkness, found my way to the hospital, to the parking garage, and followed the maze of hallways to the surgical waiting area, where I found his family. Homer had already gone into surgery, and it would be another six hours before I would finally see him, still under anesthesia, his chest covered in bandages, and with tubes here and there and everywhere. But he was alive, and the surgeons had given his family hope that he would have a complete recovery. That news gave me joy, and my joy increased as I was able to relay the good news to the rest of my congregation and my joy made my return trip to Danville that much easier and so much quicker than my earlier trip. That day, a visit that had begun with a sense of duty, had become about a relationship and about a gift. My relationship with Homer was a gift from God, and my response to that gift from God was to drive down to Duke that yucky January morning, to offer my presence and prayers to his family as we waited for news of his surgery, to rejoice with them when the surgeon gave us good news, and to lead his family in a prayer of thanksgiving when we were finally allowed to be at his bedside. In essence, my response to the gift of Homer’s relationship with me was to offer myself, my time, my energy, my presence, and my prayers, to him, to his family, and ultimately, to God.
Christmas Day was just over a week ago, and in the church, we are at the tail end of the Christmas season. Today is what we call Epiphany Sunday, when we celebrate and remember the visit of the wise men to Jesus and his parents, a visit that also involved a journey, a relationship, and gifts. Listen to how the Gospel of Matthew tells the story:
[Patti reads Matthew 2:1-12]
The wise men were from the East, possibly from what is the modern-day nation of Iran. They had been watching the skies for a while-we don’t know how long-for a star that would signify the birth of a baby who would be known as king of the Jews. As soon as they saw this star appear, they gathered provisions, packed their bags and their camels, acquired their gifts, and set out on their journey, heading west, following the bright star they saw. It was a very long journey, a journey of several hundred miles, a journey most likely done on foot or maybe on camel. It was also likely a journey whose purpose initially was diplomatic: representatives from one kingdom visiting the newly-born ruler of another kingdom. The wise men went first to Jerusalem, because it was the capital city, because this baby was supposed to be a king, and royalty and rulers almost always live in capital cities. And they did encounter a king. They encountered Herod, who was the political leader of the Jewish people, and who directed the wise men to Bethlehem, where prophets had said that Jesus would be born. Herod deviously made them promise to return to him and tell him exactly where Jesus was, so that he “could come and worship” this new Messiah. In reality, Herod was threatened by reports of this new king, and had no intention of worshipping Jesus. Whether the wise men realized Herod’s false pretenses at the time, we do not know. We know that they continued to Bethlehem, that they followed the star until it stopped at their destination.
Finally, after months of travel, after being guided only by a star and ancient writings, the wise men arrived at their destination, at the home of Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus. And their response, according to the writer of Matthew, was threefold. First, they were overcome with joy as soon as they realized that they had finally arrived at their destination. They hadn’t even seen Jesus yet, but they were overcome with joy. The Greek word that’s used in this verse indicates a joy that is God-given, a joy that is transformational, a joy that indicates some sort of deep connection with God. Second, when they entered the home and saw Jesus with Mary, they knelt and worshipped him. The verse doesn’t say that they talked about how cute Jesus was, admired Jesus, or even simply revered him as a king. The verse says that the wise men worshipped him. They saw Jesus for who he was: the Messiah, God in human flesh, the savior of the world. Third and finally, they offered him three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts show us that the wise men knew that this child was not just any king, that he was special. We don’t know how long they stayed with Jesus and his parents, only that it was probably at least overnight, because it was in a dream that God warned them not to return to Herod, but to go home a different route. God spoke, the wise men listened, and they returned home by another route. We hear nothing about them for the rest of the New Testament, but one thing is clear from this passage: that the wise men’s visit to Jesus brought forth a transformation within themselves and the clearest evidence of that transformation is found in their worship of Jesus and their obedience of God’s warning. It indicates a relationship and a response as a result of that relationship. They came bearing gifts, and they received an even greater gift in return.

What made me drive 70 miles in cruddy weather to wait and pray with a family? A relationship, the gift I received from that relationship, and my desire to give the gift of myself in return. What made the wise men travel hundreds of miles to come and worship Jesus? A relationship, the desire to offer the tangible gifts they had brought and the intangible gifts of their worship to the one true king.

We’ve talked a lot about Christmas over the past few weeks. Christmas is all about a relationship...what God gives to us, what we give to God in response. Not about duty, but about a relationship. That is the heart of Christmas, the heart of the Gospel...a God who loves us enough to come down and live among us, to be human like us, and to eventually die for us. That is the true and most important gift of Christmas. God gave us the gift of God’s Son at Christmas. What’s our response? What gift can we give in return for all that God has done for us?

[Play video]


Terri said...

When read your draft the other day I could see the black text on the brown background - but today I cannot read it....

I hope all goes well tomorrow and that you are surrounded by a great sense of support. The Holy Spirit will have your back, and I'm sure fill your words with just what the people need to hear. I'll keep you in my prayers, too.

Terri said...

Wonderful! Flows well and, like I said yesterday, I love the illustration - especially in the context of this Gospel! Well done. I hope tomorrow goes really well for you.