Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dubious Gifts - A Sermon

I know you’ve had a rough week with the weather so I thought I’d share a little story a colleague told me.  

Not long ago his cat had kittens.  One of those kittens was more adventurous than the rest and kept getting into mischief.  One day the kitten climbed up a tree and couldn’t get down.  This particular tree was young itself, so although it was too tall for my friend to reach the kitten even with a step-ladder, it was also too thin for him to climb.

He thought about it for a long time and finally had a brainstorm.  He tied a rope to the tree as high up as it would go and then tied the other end to his car.  He thought he could just bend the tree down a little bit with the car, then get out and reach the kitten.

Well, it worked pretty well, and the tree did bend down so that the top was right at eye level.  The only real problem was that my colleague had never been a boy scout and never could tie a good knot.  Just as he got out of the car and was about to reach the kitten, the knot on the car gave way, and the tree sprang up like a catapult.  That poor kitten shot up into the air with a pitiable MEOOOOW and flew out of sight.

My colleague felt terrible, of course, and drove all over looking for the poor thing but finally gave up.  Then, two days later, one of his parishioners called for him to come over.  She was really shaken and needed spiritual advice.

“Father,” she said, “I’m not sure if this is a miracle or a curse.  You know how much I hate cats and how much little Emily has been begging me for one.  Well, two days ago she kept bothering me until I finally said, ‘Look, why don’t you go bother God about it?  If he wants you to have a cat, he’ll give you one!  If he gives you one, you can keep it.

“And wouldn’t you know it, she goes out into the yard, prays to God, and out of the sky falls this kitten and lands right in her lap!”  My friend pronounced it a miracle and got out of there as fast as possible.  

You can joke about raining cats and dogs, but this gift from God was not what the mother was looking for.  On the other hand, in this dubious gift giving season, it’s been my experience that a lot of the gifts we receive (or give) are neither what we requested nor particularly want.  

Apparently, that’s the Christmas tradition.  I mean, look at poor Mary.  Here she is, minding her own business when out of the sky flies not a cat but an angel.  Gabriel pops up out of nowhere and tells her she’s going to have Jesus.  

You can imagine she was looking for this news about as much as that mother was looking for a cat.  She was young, not married but engaged -- and vulnerable to severe punishment for any inappropriate behavior.  But just as the mother knew in her heart God had spoken to her with that cat, so Mary knew that God was acting here -- giving her the chance to be involved in the most tremendous intervention in the world.

It was not what she asked for, that’s for sure, but Mary accepted this gift because it was from God.

Of course, it might be that God decided to give an unwanted gift because he’d gotten so many from us.  Think of all those sacrifices he kept saying he didn’t want, for example.  Or the temple that King David decided he would build for God in today’s Old Testament reading.

According to this story, David just up and decided that, since he had built himself a nice new palace, he ought to build one for God, too.  Probably just felt guilty.  But God would have none of it.  He sent word that he never asked for a temple and did not need one, thank you very much.  Some scholars even assert that the verse about Solomon building one was only added later because Solomon had already built it!

The difference between David’s unwanted gift to God and God’s unasked for gift to Mary is telling.  David’s gift was not really a benefit to God in any way.  It was to make David feel better -- and look better to his people and the outside world.

But God’s gift was to help us.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a hard time getting gifts for others -- knowing what will please them.  Often I give up and end up getting nothing.  But God knew exactly what we needed with this story.  It was not what Mary had asked for, but she understood how important Jesus would be to the world.

Because what we needed was a savior.  Someone who could bridge the gap we had dug separating us from the love of God.  We did not ask for it, but sometimes the gift we don’t ask for is the one that most changes our lives for the better.  Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, is that gift.

Which brings us back to that poor mother with the cat.  You can just imagine her daughter - after a day or two of infatuation with the kitten - dumping the poor thing on mom to take care of.  But you just might also imagine that woman sitting on her sofa all alone, sipping tea, and stroking a kitten curled up in her lap wondering how she ever managed before without it.  Amen.