Ephesians 1:3-14 What a joy-filled visit we had with our Cuban family in Sagua la Grande last week! We were able to share goodie bags with each household of the congregation thanks to the items you brought in for us to share. They love getting the re-usable cloth bags that are hard to come by on a Cuban salary. We filled them with items that are scarce in Cuba: note pads, pens, tea bags, ziplock bags and instant oatmeal. And we were the recipients of bags as well! They took some of the ziplock bags and put together a goodie bag for each of us, with items made by church members out of love and caring—little pins and hairbows, decorations for the kitchen, hot pads for cooking, a crocheted cross book mark for the Bible, mementos of our time with them given out of great love and respect. Wherever it happens, gift giving is a way to demonstrate affection, respect, love or compassion toward another person. As we exchange gifts between Hunting Ridge and Sagua, we demonstrate that we know each other, we value each other, we love each other.
Tomorrow, January 6, is the day marking Epiphany, the Christian church’s celebration of the revelation of the gift of God’s Son to the world beyond Israel. This day is symbolized by the arrival in Bethlehem of the astrologers from the far east—non-Jews—also called magi, or wise men, and in many cultures, it is a day for exchanging gifts. The wise men brought symbolic gifts fit for a king—gold, frankincense and myrrh. What if the wise women also came? What might they have brought? Jan Richardson, a Christian artist and writer, offers this poem together with the image on the front of your bulletin today as another way to think about the giving of gifts to the Christ child…
(Wise Women Also Came, by Jan Richardson)
Gift giving also provides a framework for this portion of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. Written several decades after Jesus rose from the dead, it is like a catalogue of the gifts God gives to us through Jesus Christ: the gifts of adoption, acceptance, grace, redemption, forgiveness, inheritance. It is not like paging through the options in the old Sears catalogue, or now on the pages of Amazon.com. Each of these gifts belongs to us. All of these come through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God gives these gifts not just so we can sit comfortably in our pews as we sing and pray together, but so that we might live for the praise of God’s glory, so that we might unite together as followers of Jesus to share the good news with the world we live in—the good news that God has come. The good news that we belong to the family of God. The good news that our sins are washed away. The good news that new life is promised. The good news that peace is at hand. Paul indicates that we all are a part of this great plan of God, we all have a role, a calling, a vocation. It may not be the way we earn our living, but our calling as Christians is to see that healing and hope and love are spread across this world that is so often a desolate place full of hatred and bloodshed and discrimination and oppression.
Paul describes the recipients of God’s catalogue of good gifts of adoption, acceptance, grace, redemption, forgiveness and inheritance as being marked with a seal that is the Holy Spirit. It is being marked by God in the way a potter marks his work with a sign on the bottom, sometimes a name or initials or a design. I brought with me this morning a small bowl made by our youngest son, Tim. I would like to pass it around so that each of you can run your finger over the seal on the bottom, the mark Tim left to indicate that this bowl was made by him. As you touch it, take a moment to reflect that God has left God’s mark on YOU, sealing you with the Holy Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing your inheritance, marking you as a member of the family. You are marked not because you have earned it in any way, but because God has given it, a free gift, so that God may be praised. This gift of Jesus Christ is a gift that highlights our role as participants in this great plan of God to share love with the world. We have been marked, sealed, and we have been given a job to do while we live out our years on this earth.
One example of the way we are living out our calling is through the partnership we share with Sagua la Grande Presbyterian. When we go for a visit, we don’t change the government policies, but we cross the human made barriers meant to keep us apart. When we visit, we don’t carry with us the funds to fix all their problems, and even if we could, it would not truly help to do that for them. Instead, when we go for a visit, we are committed to building relationships, to staying connected, to praying for one another, to sharing music and scripture and laughter and tears. That congregation was so committed to praying for Roseline when she was hit by the car in 2017. You can imagine the joy on their faces when they saw her laughing and walking and dancing and serving communion in their midst. Because we have exchanged prayer concerns via email, I know they have been praying for Stella as she recuperates from her kidney transplant. We continue to keep members of that congregation on our prayer list as well.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to help with the expenses of the 3 month treatment of inmunoferon needed by four year old Elio, with reduced levels in his immune system. His mother, Janet, is a doctor and has no way to finance or even obtain the medicine he needs in Sagua. Because we can not take the prescription medications from here, our funds were able to be used by Pastor Yailen in Havana when she accompanied us to the airport, which is 4.5 hours from Sagua. Havana has an international pharmacy since it is the large capital city. We also saw a smile on the face of Jose, an older member of the congregation who faces multiple health difficulties and is no longer able to attend worship. We sang and prayed with him, meeting his daughter and grandchildren and bringing a brief ray of joy into his bleak surroundings as we filled his small living quarters with folks from Hunting Ridge and from Sagua.
Children of God, we are gifted by God for a purpose—to be carriers of God’s love to others, wherever we go. Let us be grateful for the amazing gifts of God in Jesus Christ: adoption, acceptance, grace, redemption, forgiveness, inheritance. Let us gather the gifts up with gratitude, thanking God for marking us so that we might bring praise to the Giver of all Good Gifts! Amen.