Gifts to the public & for the common good

On Christmas Eve in worship, the congregation wrote down the gifts they would like to bring to Jesus in the New Year. They then put these printed offerings into the plates when the gifts were gathered. Here is a list of what they wrote down — promised gifts to the public in 2016:

-to volunteer at “Bible’s for Missions” 

-to help the unprivileged through Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR)

-self-determination for myself and any interested

-offer thanks for my continued health and for my parents

-give love, hope, peace for all

-give more love

-worship and love, be kind, attend church regularly

-to help [someone] who is dying of cancer

-I would like to offer myself more often in prayer and service to God

-helping refugees

-to spend more quiet time with God and worship God our Father, the Almighty and Merciful, the Loving , the. Wise ever-present God

-to be a better brother

-abundant health, love, blessings

-help to eliminate child poverty

-to help bring peace to our Syrian refugees

-visit shut-ins

-my dear loving family

-try to attend church/Sunday School more often

-patience

-helping someone

-to live more ‘on purpose’, making more informed and conscious decisions

-commitment to a church

-peace

-I offer the gift of my willingness to be kind and understand more

-good health for myself and family

-live more Godly life

An Epiphany reflection

Two kings stand amid the sand dunes under the star speckled desert sky dressed in their regal attire. Their camels peer over their shoulders at the third ‘wise man’ holding the hand of Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein. 

The two confront the third, pointing accusatory fingers at what they do not understand: “Right, we’ve picked up the gold and the myrrh … What on earth is THAT?!”

We know the story (Matthew 2) of the magi who visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, frankincense. 

We might have an idea of what gold is. But frankincense and myrrh? Basically, these are fragrant spices. But they are not the kind of gifts we would normally give anyone today, let alone a king or queen, president or prime minister. Because we are not familiar with these kinds of gifts, we get tripped up over the words and confuse them with other things. Today we know more about Frankenstein than we do about frankincense. Yet, in Jesus’ day, these were very special gifts.

Let me show you a gift I received this Christmas season. It is three bars of hand-made soap. One of the bars of soap actually has gold flecks in it, as well as frankincense and myrrh essential oils. It is called the “Gift of the Magi Soap”. I suppose there are other things about this gift that can remind me of God, the Christmas story, and the reason Jesus came to the world. 

For example, three bars of soap stand for the Trinity: God is the Father who created everything and everyone; Jesus is the Son who came to wash us clean from our sin; and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to be the people God has called us to be — to love and care for all people. Of course, the three bars also remind me of the three wise men bearing their special gifts for the baby Jesus.

These days, we will not bring frankincense or myrrh to give to Jesus. Some may bring gold. But the point is not what kind of gift it is. It is that we are willing to bring something special from our own lives to give back to God. It is our offering, whatever it is — our love, our passions, our money, our time, our talents. Maybe even myrrh and frankincense, who knows? 

In this new year, let’s spend some time first thinking about what we can give to God. And then do it. We don’t need to be kings, queens, presidents or prime ministers to give anything of value to Jesus. Because in our baptism we are all princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. And, because our various gifts are important to Jesus and his mission on earth today.

Santa is not God – the true gift

During Advent, the church has fasted. Not from food! Rather, we have refrained — tried to, at least, in our liturgies — from singing Christmas Carols. This was part of our preparation as we made room in our hearts by waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus.

But now, the wait is over! Christmas is a time for singing, a time for the carols. It is well to gorge on them now while they are plentiful, because it will be another year before we will sing them again.

Martin Luther, who loved Christmas, claimed that “music is a fair and glorious gift of God.” Music, he said, “makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. The devil flees before the sound of music as much as before the Word of God” (from the foreword to the “Wittenburg Gesangbuch” (1524), Martin Luther’s hymnbook).

So, I would like you to ponder with me what is this ‘gift’ of Christmas so well expressed in the music of the season. I invite you to listen to lyrics from a couple of different popular, contemporary Christmas songs — that are normally not sung in church. But each of these songs have something to say to us about the gift of God at Christmas — the Gospel message about the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Let’s see if you can identify them. Listen first to the words that we’ve probably heard in shopping malls since shortly after Halloween. It’s pretty easy to guess this one …

“You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town, yeah
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming to town!”

(Answer: Santa Claus is Coming to Town)

How does this popular song reflect (or not) the nature of God’s gift and grace at Christmas? And I’ll give you a hint: God is NOT Santa Claus. Yes, both Santa and Jesus are coming at Christmas to a town near you. But that’s where the similarity stops. Why?

Does God make a list? Does God check it twice? Does God try to figure out who’s naughty and nice, in order to determine who get’s the gift of Jesus’ love and presence?

If you look at all the characters in the New Testament, characters that meet Jesus, starting with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the tax collectors, those fishermen disciples, women, lepers, outcasts …. do they deserve the gift? If Santa was making a list of who’s been naughty or nice, we’d probably have to exclude everyone in the bible!

“They were people who were considered taboo, contagious, disabled, dangerous or excluded for all kinds of reasons” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.56). They were poor, ordinary folk, whose sin, whose imperfection was visible, apparent. According to the message of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, they would have received a piece of coal in their stocking!

Santa is not God. The greatness of God’s gift is precisely because it is not conditional on our hard work to be ‘nice’. The greatest gift at Christmas is not something for which we must toil or earn by our hard work. But something that is given, that is already there, inside us!

Okay, time for the second song. Hear if you can recognize it by the lyrics; it tells a beautiful story …

“A poor orphan girl named Maria
Was walking to market one day
She stopped for a rest by the roadside
Where a bird with a broken wing lay
A few moments passed till she saw it
For it’s feathers were covered with sand
But soon clean and wrapped it was travelling
In the warmth of Maria’s small hand
She happily gave her last peso
On a cage made of rushes and twine
She fed it loose corn from the market
And watched it grow stronger with time
Now the Christmas Eve service was coming
And the church shone with tinsel and light
And all of the town folks brought presents
To lay by the manger that night
There were diamonds and incense
And perfumes
In packages fit for a king
But for one ragged bird in a small cage
Maria had nothing to bring
She waited till just before midnight
So no one would see her go in
And crying she knelt by the manger
For her gift was unworthy of Him
Then a voice spoke to her through the darkness
Maria, what brings you to me
If the bird in the cage is your offering
Open the door and let me see
Though she trembled, she did as He asked her
And out of the cage the bird flew
Soaring up into the rafters
On a wing that had healed good as new
Just then the midnight bells rang out
And the little bird started to sing
A song that no words could recapture
Whose beauty was fit for a king
Now Maria felt blessed just to listen
To that cascade of notes sweet and long
As her offerings was lifted to heaven
By the very first nightingale’s song.”

(Answer: Garth Brooks, “The Gift”)

The gift is an experience of grace, of something wonderful happening to us and in us and around us that is beyond our own efforts. All we need to do, is bring it forward, and offer what we have that is true to who we are — including our weaknesses, our limitations, our lowliness.

And God makes something beautiful out of our simple offering — the gift of our hearts, our minds, our hands. Like the healing of the bird, and its free song, it is a gift of pure love, a love that is shines unrelenting in the darkness and brokenness of our lives.

Last week at our children’s school concert, as is usual fair at these events, each class and grade goes on stage and presents a seasonal skit or song.

Near the end of the program, the audience was delighted to receive Ottawa singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff on stage with his guitar, surrounded by the grade 2-3 class. They danced and sang a simplified version of Craig’s popular song: “Love is Louder Than All the Noise”.

In the second verse, he writes:
“Was your messy heart chosen
or was it overlooked?
Are you the crazy in the corner,
writing it in your book?
A cynic with a cynic’s hook
waiting for the sky to fall?
Were you to be taken from me
by word by craft or by bomb
I would rage into an army
and bring you back with songs…
We said love is louder
than all this, all this noise.
Love is louder than all this noise.”

In the singing that we enjoy in this festive season, may our hearts, our minds and our hands sing loudest of the love of God. This greatest gift doesn’t come from our belief and ability to impress, nor from the resourcefulness of our own doing, nor from all the glitter and glamour.

The greatest gift of Christmas comes from a simple desire to love, and the openness of heart to be loved.