A few days before Christmas I was given a gift that was completely unexpected and greatly appreciated. It was not given to me by any of you! The gift was novel to me, and not only well intentioned, it was also well chosen: there’s no question I’d enjoy it. The gift was handed to me in a shopping bag, it was not wrapped; and I carried it home in that same shopping bag, into which also put some Christmas purchases I had made to give to others, and I set it down in the foyer of the Rectory, amid a number of other shopping bags. I know that I wrapped and gave away all the other contents of that bag, but the gift that was intended for me somehow disappeared.
I don’t think anyone took it. I’m quite sure I didn’t give it to anyone else – wrapped or unwrapped – but I cannot for the life of me find it. One of two possibilities seems likely to me. Either the gift stayed in the bag and has been moved to the back of a closet somewhere, where eventually it will be discovered. Or, the gift stayed in the bag, and was un-noticed when, at some point, discarded Christmas wrappings, cards, catalogs, etc were added to the bag and sent to the trash, and it will never be seen again. What a shame it is that I have not only lost out on a gift that I am sure I would have enjoyed, but that I also cannot fully appreciate the kindness of the giver.
Of course, I can think of other gifts that are languishing elsewhere, in the back of closets or cupboards, or on a shelf somewhere, some even in the back of the freezer. And there are other gifts that have been lost, or broken, or misused, or eaten by the dog. I do not think of myself as an ungrateful person – quite the contrary, I feel extremely grateful to be the recipient of many gifts, in every sense of the word. But the thing about a gift is that once it has been given away, the giver has no control over it, no matter how generous and good a gift it was. The recipient is always free, and sometimes very likely, to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gift altogether. And there is nothing the giver can do about it.
I suppose the most famous, most frequently quoted verse of the entire New Testament may be John 3:16. It is the one verse that can be universally recognized just by its citation. I mean, if I mention Isaiah 7:14 to you, some of you will get the reference right away, but most of you will have to look it up. Not so, when it comes to John 3:16. In fact, if I handed out paper and pencils right now and asked you to write out the text of that verse, most of you would probably get pretty close, and if I let you make a group project of it, we could probably get an accurate translation in several languages and debate the merits of word choice.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Say what you will about this small text and all it signifies; without question, the text asserts that God’s Son is a gift that God has given. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” What is true of the gifts given to me, and the gifts I give to others, is also true of the gifts God gives to his people: the recipient is always free, and sometimes very likely, to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gift altogether. And I would add that the ability to quote the text is in no way correlative with the likelihood that one has kept track of the gift.
Just to be clear, the loss of the gift that I am referring to is not what happened on the Cross. No, no, no… I am talking about us - the church, and the world – we are the ones who have all too often lost, ruined, forgotten, or ignored the gift of God’s Son. At least I can say this assuredly of myself, and I suppose that if it is true of me, then it is also true of you.
The mechanics of the church do not necessarily turn into an engagement with Jesus, and it is notoriously easy to become caught up in the mechanics of the church without ever cherishing that most precious gift of God’s – his only Son. This may be especially so in a place like our parish community where the mechanisms of religion are ornamented and complex. What pretty vestments we have! It is entirely possible to take exquisite care of all our other gifts – the hardware and the software here - but still lose track of the gift of Jesus.
You have to wonder about a guy like Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, and therefore well acquainted with the mechanisms of religion. It was Nicodemus’s conversation that prompts Jesus to utter the words that would become John 3:16. What did Nicodemus make of the gift as he sat there face to face with him? St. John informs us of Nicodemus intervention at two subsequent moments – first, he sticks up for Jesus in a small way when the other Pharisees are beginning to condemn him; and later he brings spices to the grave to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So it’s hard to say, frankly, what Nicodemus made of the gift of the Son of God, but it seems like he was trying, somehow, to accept that gift, and not to lose track of him. But Nicodemus can be forgiven for not knowing that he was a witness to the first utterance of John 3:16. After all, he did not know that he would be featured in John 3:1-15.
But we have had time to reflect on the gift; we have presumably built a church because of this gift; and it is the object and purpose of the church to cherish the gift of God’s Son in every conceivable way, never to lose track of him; and to share this gift with the world with a gracious generosity that befits the gift itself.
In the church we are regularly in danger of preaching only to the proverbial choir, which means that we are prone to want to tell ourselves only those things that we want to hear. If this is so, then we are also in danger of never reminding ourselves how easy it is to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gifts of God. And we can easily mistake the ready ability to quote John 3:16 for actually cherishing the gift of Jesus in our lives.
But Lent is a good time for a more honest assessment of things, which in this case means, I think, asking ourselves what we have done with this most precious gift of God’s – the gift of his Son. Unlike Nicodemus, we cannot go to him for a starlight chat. But we get to know Jesus in worship and in prayer, and we keep track of Jesus in our lives by serving others, by loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s this pattern that shapes the ministry of this parish, precisely because this is how we establish and deepen our relationship to Jesus. And the pattern is demanding here because we know how easily we lose, ruin, forget, or ignore Jesus.
One of the ways we try to know Jesus better during Lent is walking the Way of the Cross every Friday evening. This year on Fridays we have been reading, at the Stations of the Cross, poems written by the girls of Our Little Roses orphanage in Honduras. Only one of these poems addresses God directly: a prose poem written by a girl named Aylin, who was sixteen years old when she wrote the poem. She has three older sisters and a younger brother. Aylin has in common with Nicodemus that she speaks with God in the nighttime. Her poem is called “Counting”:
“Every week, every day, every hour, every minute, and every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock. I am the knife and the rock is my life. So this is me, Aylin, and this is my difficult life without my family. Some people think that living in a home for girls like Our Little Roses is a big blessing. Yes, I say to those people, it is a great blessing but at the same time it is a curse. Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: “Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?” There is no answer. A lot of people see me with my sisters and my aunt, who is not really my aunt, and they think we are a happy group, but really all of us think the same thing that no one ever says: One day, will our mother come to visit us? It is ugly to know that everyone in this school is celebrating Mother’s Day. On this day, I feel ashamed to be me. But, God, listen to this: I am counting the time like people count the stars and I will keep counting until my mother comes. My sisters are graduating and soon I will go to college, too. When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: i forgive you! But for now, God, I am here, in Our Little Roses, counting.”[i]
When I hear such emboldened anguish, I realize how careless it is of me to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore gifts I have been given, no matter how small. Still more careless ever to lose, ruin, forget, or ignore the gift of Jesus, who God sent into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The world is in need of love, and of salvation. God gave us his Son – he gave us his Son – for love, and for salvation. Yes, God gave us his Son, and like any gift, what we do with this most precious gift of love, is up to us.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
12 March 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] from Las Chavas, edited by Spencer Reece and Richard Blanco. From the Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org).