Monday, January 22, 2018

January 7, 2018 - Epiphany and Assets

Officially, yesterday, January 6, was Epiphany, a day which over time has celebrated a number of events in the gospel story.  At various times and places in Christian history, Epiphany has been the day of celebration of Christ’s birth, the celebration of the three wise men, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, the celebration of the first miracle, water into wine.  Depending on where we are in the cycle of readings, we will hit on all those stories at the beginning of January.  Normally, the Sunday after Epiphany is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus.  Yet we decided that on this Sunday we would take part in an asset mapping project for our congregation and, as such, I thought the Epiphany story of wise men bringing gifts to the infant Jesus was fitting.

                Think about the contours of this story.  These travelers from the east don’t know much about the person they are coming to see.  They are following a sign in the heavens, which brings them to Israel.  They get more details from Herod, who sends them to Bethlehem after consulting with his religious experts.    They come to kneel before this king bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.  A fair amount ink has been spilled giving special significance to these gifts.  Some note that there are ancient accounts which would suggest that this trio was a standard gift package for royalty.  Others (such as the “We Three Kings” hymn) will point the symbolic value of the gifts: gold implies royalty, frankincense priesthood, and myrrh, an anointing oil, a symbol of Christ’s death and the preparation of his body for burial.

                Yet perhaps for us we should acknowledge the ancient wisdom that you don’t show up to the king’s house emptyhanded.  The gift was a point of honor (and a bad gift could be a point of shame, hence the lack of tube socks in the story).  In some cases, the gift was given to cement a friendship, in others it was given to appease a stronger power.  But in this story, the gift is really about honoring the child.  The wise men don’t seem to have ulterior motives, hoping to be remembered or honored in return down the line.  They arrive.  They give gifts.  They go home.

                So when we talk about gifts, assets today, the sense of honoring Jesus is part of the conversation.  Often when we talk about gifts in the church we end up talking about money.  In the middle of our worship we take a collection and offer it God, both as a way to further the mission of the church but also as a way to simply honor the God who gave it to us, to show gratitude.  And money is an asset that we bring to church.  Money can be a limiting factor as to what condition our building is, the type of staffing we have, the kinds of ministries we can do.

                But money is far from the church’s only asset.  We are a community of people with gifts of time and ability.  Most of you have vehicles and many of you have used those vehicles for ministry, driving homebound folks to appointments, bringing food to those served by Belonging to Each Other.  We have a building, and three nights a week people come for help to deal with the struggle of addiction.  We honor God by using our gifts, our assets faithfully.  God is infinite and so there is nothing that we can give to God that God does not already possess.  We honor God by using what God has given us for the sake of God’s kingdom.

                Now this is a moment where I will sound a little stern, because I have been here almost 10 years and I know how many of you think.  Often when we do this kind of exercise folks come to it with a conclusion already in mind.  We should have a weekly choir.  We should have a weekly Sunday school.  We should have a big committee structure that feels like a real church.  I am often amazed when I have read church administration books at how they assume that every church will have a certain, standard package of gifts available.  “You will want to talk to the lawyer in your congregation.” “ Hopefully, an accountant in your congregation will serve as treasurer. “  This kind of thinking does not serve the small church well because it constantly sets it up for disappointment.  I guess we just aren’t talented enough to have that choir or young enough to have that Sunday school.  As our dear member Sylvia S. would say, “Poor us.” 

                But we do have a place and a purpose.  We do have unique, God-given gifts.  When I mentioned Sylvia, many of you knew who I was talking about even though she hasn’t been able to be here in a few weeks.  That is one of the gifts of a smaller community.  We have a better chance to be in relationship with one another.  Recently, we did the work of crafting a new mission statement, “Serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.”  That simple statement is extremely deep and can take us in many different directions based on how we use the assets God has given us.  Fundamentally, what we are asking as we look at our mission and as we look more deeply at our community is, “What is God’s will in this community?”  Having a renewed sense of mission and knowing the gifts we bring to the table, “What is God’s will in this community?”

                I’m going to invite you to take a couple minutes to have an initial stab at the question.  Talk with some of the folks around you and give your gut answer to that question…

                As the wise men of our story, we offer our gifts to honor Christ.  But as the body of Christ, we use our gifts for the kingdom of God.   May we offer our gifts joyfully and use them faithfully to work toward the kingdom of God.

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