We traditionally think that three kings presented gifts to Jesus because Matthew wrote they brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh. However, a close reading of the scripture passage does not have any reference to a specific number of kings. Recent scholarship, however, found evidence of a fourth king. He brought the fruitcake.
Seriously, though, if you had to bring a gift to Jesus, what would you bring? Or maybe we should ask, “What would Jesus like?”
Personally, I don’t think he was too much into material things, especially the gifts the kings brought. Those were gifts for royalty and Jesus was not seeking to be a king in any secular sense.
Caesar’s kingdom was the Roman Empire. Jesus’ kingdom was God’s. While both kingdom’s sought peace, the Empire kept the peace by fear. Scarcity, there just wasn’t enough for everyone. Oppression, intimidate the people with instruments of violence, such as the cross. Protection, keep out the rabble and the riff-raff. The Empire defined strength by a mighty military armed with fierce weapons of destruction. The Empire defined success by accumulated wealth and vast material possessions. The Empire practiced leadership by overwhelming dominance.
God’s kingdom, though, is the realm of peace and justice rooted in steadfast love. When love prevails, there is no such thing as scarcity, rather we remember Creation’s abundance. When love prevails, we open ourselves to strangers because we believe in every person’s inherent goodness and that by welcoming the stranger our hearts will expand and we will have more capacity to love. When love prevails, we understand that true transformation comes not through weapons of destruction or instruments of violence, but by breaking bread together. When love prevails, we define wealth not by how much we have, but by how much we give away. When love prevails, we define leadership by humility. Where there is love, there is no fear.
This is the realm of God. The realm of God overturns the ways, the assumptions, and the organization of this world. As the church, we’re called to lead our communities to live into this realm, heaven on earth. That means we have responsibility to do the social justice work, such as immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, creation care, and gender rights. We have a responsibility to find an end to homelessness, opioid abuse, food insecurity, racism, and poverty.
Yet, we also have to be honest with ourselves. Certainly, these are major issues and without addressing them, they leave us very far away from heaven on earth. We can rail against any and all of them, and that can lead to change providing we don’t keep our anger and frustration only to ourselves. Our advocacy must work in collaboration with people and organizations who can make a difference. However, do we do more talking than acting? Around here, many churches are apt to say, “We’re not very big. We don’t have a lot of people. Our financial resources are limited.” So, we rightfully lament. We make donations. However, we don’t see much change; we don’t see how we’re making a difference. That’s frustrating.
We’re caught. Leaving them unaddressed raises questions about the reasons for our own existence. Why are we a church if we don’t take seriously God’s call to us to bring true peace and justice to this world? On the other hand, we feel impotent and wonder if we’re tilting at windmills.
Might I suggest a different approach? A different way of thinking? While not losing sight of the big issues, let’s look to see how those issues directly affect our neighbors by walking with them in their struggles. Furthermore, helping our neighbors reframes the social justice issues. We could embrace someone with mental illness to remind her that she is loved. We could help a person assaulted by the indignities of old age to live gracefully or support an adult child as he struggles to help his aged parents. We could help an immigrant family transition to living in Pittsfield. We could work with a family to help them get out of debt by helping them with their budgeting and spending in order to transition them to financial stability. We could help a mother and father grapple with their son’s opioid addiction, or perhaps even worse, help a child through a parent’s addiction.
I believe the Empire’s influence colors our self-perception. When we believe we don’t have enough members or money to make a difference, we see ourselves from the perspective of the Empire. When we measure our capacity to serve God by membership size or money, we’re using the quantitative, material measures of success. But God says, that’s not what makes the difference. The difference comes when we serve in love; bearing in mind that love is not an emotion, but a verb. God says to us, “You are worthy. You are capable. You are my hands and feet. You are my instruments of peace. You have the capacity to love. Take care of my children.” Friends, love is inexhaustible. It is an ever-flowing stream. It is an overflowing bottomless cup.
Here’s a rub, though. We won’t help everyone. We won’t even help a quarter of the people who are in need. But can we help one or two or possibly four? By helping them, they will be better off. And we would have accomplished more than just railing at the injustice.
I just finished serving homeless veterans at Soldier On. I couldn’t help all of them. I didn’t help half of them. But I made a difference in some people’s lives, and that difference moved them from despair to hope. I didn’t change their past. I didn’t make all their struggles vanish. But I did help them find a new way forward through their struggles so they could see a future without drugs or alcohol and a real possibility to end their homelessness.
Working closely with people who were homeless opened my eyes and gave me a better understanding into the challenges they faced. To say, “We need more affordable housing,” believing that the answer is more funding for Section 8, overlooks a tangle of impeding factors such as: physical health, mental health, unsteady income, criminal record, inadequate transportation, or drug addiction. We don’t always realize how close many people are to losing their housing. Working without benefits, such as sick leave, can put a single mother on the street if in caring for her sick child she misses too much work.
Here’s one the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations is working on. There are people in this city who cannot afford to be properly honored in death. They have no money to be cremated, to open a grave, and have a marker. Imagine covering the costs to bury a loved one with your entire monthly disability check, which left you nothing for rent.
By working closely with people who are directly affected by social injustices, several things happen. First, we offer hope to the person and possibly change her life. Second, we learn from him about the problem, thus giving us more intimate knowledge about it. That leads to the third point. We can be better and more effective advocates on the issue itself. Fourth, we get to know our neighbors, especially people whom we would otherwise never get to know. Thus, we enrich our community by drawing its circle wider. Fifth, though the social justice issue remains, we feel less frustrated by it because we made a difference to someone affected by injustice and possibly even transformed her life.
Friends, we are the fourth king, and we are the gift. We give of ourselves. We give our hearts, especially when we see the Christ in everyone we meet.