The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
Sunday, January 8, 2017: The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
In every relationship, there is a moment in which you have – no matter how much counseling you get, no matter how much preparation you put into it – a moment of disillusionment. There’s this moment in which you realize that no matter if you’ve lived together before you’ve gotten married; no matter if you have spent all this time getting to know the in-laws or the future in-laws, there’s a moment of disillusionment. A moment which you think, “Oh my God, what have I done? I’m hitched to a child. I’m hitched to someone with very childlike needs. What am I going to do?” Every relationship is like that because the point of life is that we realize that we are all just human beings working together. So there are these moments in which you have a disillusionment. The scales fall from your eyes a little bit.
And one such moment happened in my relationship with Claire about three years into it. See, I had been trying to convince her, because I was fairly sporty, that I was kind of okay with all things sporty. But there was one sport I detested, and that was baseball, professional baseball. I hated professional baseball. And I should’ve known, getting married to Claire, that that was not going to go well. Because the earliest picture of Claire when she’s a little girl has her wearing a Boston Red Sox hat and going to the stadium where she eats, in the freezing cold, a frozen banana that’s been dipped in chocolate. I should’ve known this. But Claire wanted us to go to a professional baseball game, and I resisted. I said it was too long. I didn’t like it. I said that besides golf, it’s kind of the refuge for the least athletic people in the world. I tried to come up with “All the players are overpaid,” this kind of thing.
And then, finally, I decided I would tell her the truth. There is a reason why I didn’t like baseball, and it happened when I was nine years old. My Boy Scout troop went to Yankee Stadium. My mother was working, so she looked at the list that they gave us and somehow, she missed a couple of details. So she took this blue plastic carrier and she put a sandwich in there, and then she needed some kind of beverage for me. So she took one of her bottles of Tab and she put it in there, and she zipped it up and she gave it to me. I got to the park and immediately they asked to look inside the carrier. I unzipped it for them and they found a bottle and they confiscated my lunch. So then I went, I didn’t have any money with me, and I went with all the other Cub Scouts.
We get seated and I didn’t have a lunch. And slowly this began to dawn on people. One of the mothers came over and said, “Do you want me to go with you so you can buy a hotdog?” I said, “No, I’m okay. I don’t have any money.” She said, “Do you want me to buy you a hotdog?” I said, “It’s okay.” I was too proud to acknowledge that I was hungry. Then that year, the Yankees had won everything. It was the kind of Bucky Dent season for them. For some reason, they lost. I came away from that moment, that nine-year-old boy, walked away thinking one thing was certain in my mind: baseball sucked. It was this awful ritual that people got into. I felt, on that day, so alone, so uncared for. I felt so…There was something inside me that got wounded.
We all have that in our lives. We all have the child that we remain that we’re afraid to let anybody see. Because these little moments – and they seem so trivial when you explain them, but these little moments can really kind of make you the weird person you are. So finally, I decided I would say to Claire, “The reason why I don’t like baseball is my first experience was incredibly unpleasant. Every time I even think about a professional sports arena, I think of that. I think of that moment where I was alone. I was not particularly well cared for, and I just unconnect.” I explained this all to her and then she said to me, “Yeah, but that was a long time ago, and I really like baseball, so maybe you can get over yourself and come with me to the ballgame.”
I said, “Okay, I’m going to get over myself.” We went to Camden Yards and it was this wonderful, warm summer day. We went into the cheap seats and there was this incredible breeze. I was surprised to see that Claire had this windbreaker on because it was so warm. And then we got seated and she turned and she unzipped her coat and she pulled out a bottle of Tab and a sandwich. She has no memory of this. I swear to you on a stack of Bibles, she did it. And it made all the difference in the world because in that moment, I realized that she was willing to live and nurture even that part of me that remained a small child. Looking back on it, I kind of am a little proud of myself in that instead of putting up the front, the rationalization; instead of being evasive, in that moment, I decided to actually tell her the story of being that lonely little boy.
What is a gift? Anthropologists will tell you that gifts are kind of a gift of ourselves, a reflection of ourselves. Gift giving is a kind of language we speak, a kind of love language. And gifts are an invitation to live into deeper relationship. And all of this, I think, is at the heart of our reading today from the gospel of Matthew. The magi come to Jesus and they bring gifts. And those gifts are meant in one way or another to convey something about who Jesus is – His status, His royalty. Commentators have debated for centuries whether or not the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were some kind of symbolic precursor of Jesus’s death on the cross because myrrh is used in embalming. And others have argued that the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were simply costly items that they brought to Jesus. But I think all of those gifts were an attempt, by these magi, to give a piece of themselves. To communicate in a love language to the Christ child and to try to enter into deeper relationship.
Earlier this summer, I was in Pittsburgh, and I went to the Andy Warhol museum. Photographs are not allowed, but I took my phone and pretended to check my email. I took the picture that’s on the cover of the bulletin today. It’s a little pen and ink that Warhol did when he was trying to advertise shoes and make his living. It was 1951. He had just gotten, I think, to New York City. That’s his depiction of the magi. There they are – one’s on a flamingo. They’re the magi with telephones, so if you look closely at the picture, you’ll see that some of them have little Western Union kind of handsets and telephones. That was his way of reinforcing the fact that the magi are trying to communicate. They’re trying to reach. They’re trying to close the distance through their journey, through the gifts they bring. Charming.
But I think what’s really at stake in this gospel is not so much the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the magi gave to Jesus. I think what’s powerful in today’s gospel is the fact that that gold, frankincense, and myrrh is a reflection of the gift that’s being given in that moment. Because Jesus is the gift of God’s self and Jesus is the love language of God, and Jesus is the invitation to us to enter into deeper relationship. That is all symbolized by the response of the magi who are seeking to enter into relationship, to speak that language back, and to give something of themselves. There’s something powerful in today’s gospel, in that it takes place amidst all this intrigue and power politics, in which the Wise Men have to be truly wise and listen closely to the things inside of them as they negotiate a terrain that is incredibly violent and dangerous.
So it is that God has come into our midst, the very fabric of our own lives, which are messy and unkempt. Full of moments in which things fall apart. Yet God has come to give the gift of Himself. The gift of Himself, of a Son, to make a connection in the midst of the world we find. Not as our best selves, but as the child that remains in us, the parts of us that do not in any way want to see the light of day. God knows all that messiness, and, yet, He comes, speaking a language of love. Inviting us to a deeper relationship.
The nativity gospels are a kind of prism in which you can see all the gospel promises of Jesus in a nutshell. And everything today is placed in the context of the gifts we give and the gifts we receive. One of my favorite children’s story is written by O. Henry, and it’s about this couple at Christmas, Della and Jim. Della wants to buy her husband a beautiful gift. They are poor and living in New York City. Della has scrimped and saved only $1.87, so she decides to go to a wig maker and sell her beautiful hair so that she can buy a gold chain for Jim’s watch. Jim, wanting to give Della something beautiful, goes and sells the beautiful gold watch that he inherited so that Della could have these beautiful combs for her hair that he saw her admire on Broadway. There’s this moment in which the two meet and they realize what each other has done. There’s a gesture towards the gospel where Della says, “I know that every hair on my head is counted, Jim, but nothing can count my love for you.” Jim, receiving that gift explains what he had done and said that they could wait for her hair to grow back.
We tend to forget, because it’s such a beautiful story, that there’s a theological point in it. The title of the story is The Gift of the Magi. That’s what O. Henry did. The piece, the illustration I have for you today is from Ofra Amit, an Israeli artist, who did this illustration for an Italian translation of this story that came out in 2013. In it, Amit has that moment in which Della and Jim realized that they had given away what was materially the most precious thing they had, to try to somehow please the other. And having lost those things, they only had themselves to give. So there’s a moment in which they hold and embrace, and realize, maybe not themselves, but the reader realizes that they had given everything to each other. And this is how Henry finishes the story.
The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
You are the magi. What gifts are God calling you to give and receive? Amen.