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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Tuesday Lectionary Leanings- Gifts vs. Presence edition

Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Epistle: Ephesians 3:1-12
New Testament: Matthew 2:1-12

And today, the week after the murder of the innocents, we go backwards and remember the magi who arrived to honor Jesus and bring their symbolic and extremely impractical gifts.
Who were the magi?

We don’t know very much, and guesses abound as to the details. There are some who think that the magi might have been women (seriously- not just that e-mailed joke about women bringing casseroles and arriving on time). Others suggest that there would most certainly have been more than three, as a trip of that magnitude for just three people who have been lunacy.

Why did they come? Usually, when I ask that question, I focus on the motivation of the Wise Ones. But this year, I’ve been wondering why from the other direction. What did they do for Jesus? What was the point of their trip? What did it accomplish? Because of their visit with Herod, didn’t it do more damage than good?

But... how do you measure presence?
What is the worth of showing up? Being there?
How do we let go of the desire for quantifiable results?

Just some thoughts- what are you thinking this week?

“The Gift,” by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams Volume II 1939-1962 (New Directions).

As the wise men of old brought gifts
guided by a star
to the humble birthplace

of the god of love,
the devils
as an old print shows
retreated in confusion.

What could a baby know
of gold ornaments
or frankincense and myrrh,
of priestly robes
and devout genuflections?

But the imagination
knows all stories
before they are told
and knows the truth of this one
past all defection

The rich gifts
so unsuitable for a child
though devoutly proffered,
stood for all that love can bring.
The men were old
how could they know

of a mother's needs
or a child's

But as they kneeled
the child was fed.
They saw it
and gave praise!
A miracle

had taken place,
hard gold to love,
a mother's milk!
their wondering eyes.

The ass brayed
the cattle lowed.
It was their nature.

All men by their nature give praise.
It is all
they can do.

The very devils
by their flight give praise.
What is death,
beside this?
The wise men
came with gifts

and bowed down
to worship
this perfection.

(note: I can't get blogger to format this poem the way Williams wrote it- with spaces and indentations. If you plan on using it, it's not hard to google it and find the correct spacing. I apologize...)


  1. Dang Listing, you are VERY good at these, if for no other reason than your poems make me look like I am literate when I use them in worship.

    And I have that email on an actual plaque in my office.

  2. Well, with this intro to the readings this week I am excited about the possibilities for preaching. Thanks!

    Somehow I will preach on Epiphany and the surprising wonderful ways we know God's love, those least expected ways...then again maybe God will surprise me and I'll go a different way...

  3. I usually spend time reflecting on the meaning of the word epiphany, and how that is real in our lives. Since I'm in a new parish, and still getting to know the people and the culture, I'm not as sure where to go. It will be interesting to see where the texts lead this week!

  4. I have been haunted by the fact that they went home by another way.

    Those wise men started out as agents of Herod's destructive agenda, but once they saw what was True, they could no longer continue that path.

    Isn't that what or encounter with Christ does for us? We can no longer follow on the way we intended. Our trajectory is forever changed.

    Epiphany, indeed.

  5. MMM, interesting way to look at this passage.

    I had planned on using the Ephesians passage, but I am changing my mind. I don't even remember why, and I left my notes at hand. So as I have been away, I have been re-looking at the Matthew passage. The poem really struck me too. Wow. I'll be praying today to listen to God's direction.

    Oh and BBT had a sermon called Home by another Way. Don't have it with me and not sure of what she said. But certainly when we encounter Jesus we often go another way.

  6. I lived out "home by another way" in my travels yesterday, and I think I will probably preach about being open to the unexpected. Lord knows, I need to hear that sermon myself! And for a church deep into the search process, it feels like an appropriate direction. What preconceived notions might they have, both the committee and the congregation? What were the Wise Men sure of, themselves?
    Thanks, Listing, for this great introduction to the texts.

  7. Love the poem...almost makes me wish I were preaching this weekend. Also appreciate your take on the "why?" question, LS...Senior Pastor preached Sunday on Luke 2:1-7 and Matt 2:13-23 (I think), about the different stories of Christ's birth and Herod's evil intention...that God somehow caused it all to unfold as it needed to so that the Christ-child was both honored and protected. And of course noted Matt's emphasis on Jesus being like Moses.
    Amazing how God works. I don't think God's much concerned with what color socks I wear today (or if I wear any at all) and I don't believe in God as puppet master tweaking every detail of our lives. But it's comforting to have faith that God not only takes an interest in what goes on with God's people, but also takes a part in our lives.

  8. I am going with gifts. It really isn't the focus of the story as Matthew tells it but it is the focus of what the kings do in popular imaginations of the story.

    I am thinking about what gifts we have to bring. If I am really ambitious I may use that to talk about why we are here as a part of the house of GOd in this place and time and what we have to offer that would be missed if we closed our doors.

    Or then again, since it is also a communion SUnday I may keep it short and simple...

  9. I'm not preaching this weekend as we are going to a training for an exciting MDG project that our diocese is planning for Lent. It occurs to me that there is a wonderful missional link with the gifts theme that I might use if I *were* preaching...since Jesus tells us that what we do unto the least of these we do unto Him...perhaps they are the ones we should be bringing all those great gifts and riches to....and linking it back to God with them.

  10. I'm with Gord on the need to keep it short and simple to make time for communion.

    These are (as always) a terrific start to the week's ponderings. Thanks everyone!

  11. The wise men
    came with gifts

    and bowed down
    to worship
    this perfection.

    I just love this.

    Cheesehead - what an epiphany indeed. I love it :)

    wonderful thoughts from you all ... thanks for sharing. I love this :)and what a GREAT start for NEW YEAR (public holiday here)

    an aside : Listing Straight I can't find your blog ...

  12. oh- oh -oh-oh. Cheesehead, Home by Another Way, is the name of a song on the James Taylor Album Never Die Young. It's about the Magi. Please check it out.

    Also, there are a couple of lines in T.S. Eliot's poem, think it's called "The journey of the magi." It becomes, "A cold coming we had of it....", and I think he is quoting an anglican priest, Lancelot Andrewes.

    Finally, the Henry van Dyke story, the 4th Wise Man, identifies the wise men as Zoroastrians. Don't know if there is any evidence for that, but it's interesting.

    I'm not preaching this weekend, but I'll be hosting the preacher party, and there's LOTS of good stuff here.

    I have preached on it before, we Always do epiphany, and most recently I talked about the "2 kings" (not the magi), but Jesus and Herod.

  13. Amahl and the Night Visitors is one of my favorite albums at this time. Martin Bell has a poem about stars and how they seem more to follow us as we drive through the countryside - so perhaps every place has a holy child with a star over her house.

  14. Great ideas...also thought of the O. Henry ""Gift of the Magi" stroy, long a favorite...this is full of such symbolic richness, it seems to have a deep heart touch for us, doesn't it? Epiphany was very important in my own spiritual journey. Really does make me wish I were preaching

  15. I'm reading "Listening For God" by Renita Weems (a Christmas gift!) and she talks about how the Exodus story also reflects this idea of returning home by another way.

    The Exodus story tells of a "short cut" for the liberated Israelites, but God sent them in another direction (the Red Sea route) so that they could appreciate the journey itself as valuable. Apparently the other route (the one they didn't take) was more likely to be filled with disappointment and despair.

    To follow that thought a bit further: does it make sense that the wise ones needed another way home because they too had to learn to appreciate the spiritual value of the journey itself?

  16. I don't have to preach (ever), but it's great to read the different ideas you all have and then compare them to what I will hear on Sunday. Thanks all!

  17. auntie knickers ... I love it too. Our Bible group does a similar thing (though we meet fortnightly) and one of us prepares questions about the Gospel for the following Sunday.

    (We decided against discussing the preceding Sunday as it could easily develop into a criticism of whoever happened to preach and also exclude those who were not in the service)

    I think we've learnt a lot by doing this - but not as much variety as is on this thread each week

    We meet on Tuedays too but because of the time difference I usually can't take much from here with me (unfortunately) ... nor can I use it for ideas for when it's my turn to ask questions - but I guess it's good we (I) have to think for myself first.

  18. The idea of the wise men "just showing up" really jived with what I was thinking about this week. Namely about offering our presence in situations where there isn't really anything else we can do (an experience I had this week). Also, showing up when God calles to us. I'm not preaching this week but I wrote one anyway, it leaned heavily on call and response to call as "showing up."

  19. From WH Auden's Christmas Oratorio:
    At least we know for certain that we are three old
    That this journey is much too long, that we want our
    And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
    But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we

  20. I don't have to preach this week as I'm on vacation, and I just wanted a chance to type that.;)

    Enjoying others' thoughts, though.

  21. listing - I also was wondering about the "more harm than good" aspect of the wise one's journey. But not sure how it would preach, exactly ("keep trying, even though you leave destruction and heartbreak in your wake" ? - maybe not...)

    cheesehead and songbird -- love the home by anohter way thoughts

    Because of my context, I'm concentrating on Isaiah, I think, and on the reality of imagination.

  22. I'm a little late posting, but appreciated reading. I, too, am working with the "home by another way" piece. I went to a youth conference as a high schooler where this was the theme. I don't remember the content, but the phrase jumped at me and the Spirit spoke.

    Since this is also a communion week for us I am incorporating that into my thoughts, and basically have the idea that encounters with Christ should change us so much that we cannot live the way we did before. Discovering (or being led to) Jesus can be dangerous from the viewpoint of whatever it is that previously reigned in our lives (Herod, work, school, addiction, pride, etc.) because meeting him, encountering him should result in full worship (the magi fell down), and a redirection of the way we usually do things.

    This is my first Sunday in my new church, my second call. I have moved from associate pastor ministry to solo pastor ministry, so I'm trying to breathe deep as I move into a new discipline of weekly preaching. Any extra prayers folks have would be appreciated!


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