Unexpected Gifts

Sermon preached on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Unexpected Gifts

This is Epiphany Sunday, the day of magi and gifts, an image we see on Christmas cards and manger scenes, and the day that gives our season its name. Making the time between Christmas and Lent – a season of “epiphanies,” the ways (great and small) God shows forth in our lives, and the ways we notice those showings.¹

As our text tell us, the wise men noticed God’s showing forth in the form of the star. They set off towards Jerusalem. Imagine their surprise when the baby they foretold wasn’t where they assumed he would be born – in the palace of Jerusalem, or at least nearby, maybe the Temple? After all this was the newborn king of the Jews they were hoping to find. The birth of Jesus took everyone by surprise, even those who were responding to the signs, who had noticed God’s epiphany. But as the wise men discovered, God shows up when and where we least expect, and through the most unlikely people.²

This story of the wise men is almost overly familiar to us, yet, we don’t actually hear the text from Matthew all that often. When we listen to it carefully, we realize that there’s a lot that we assume that’s not in the text. While we love our hymn, We Three Kings, we never hear how many wise men there are, just how many gifts are bestowed by them; and the only kings mentioned in the text are Herod and Jesus. The wise men, as they are called in our translation, are not kings, they are magi, Zoroastrian priests from Persia. They were well known for telling fortunes, interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. They were scholars of their day and advisors to the Persian emperor. It’s important for Matthew to show that God’s salvation is for the whole world – not only is Jesus the expected King of the Jews; even the Gentiles have noticed the signs and these Gentile Magi recognize Jesus’ divinity and kingship.³

The magi noticed God’s showing forth in the star – even though it wasn’t easy. While most of our Christmas cards and creches feature a bright star hovering over the holy family – this story in Matthew’s Gospel suggests something a lot less obvious. Only the magi, who are professional star gazers, notice the star among the thousands of others that are visible. King Herod depends on these strangers to lead him to this child he is now terrified of, confirming that it’s not an easy task, even if you are really searching.⁴

Like Luke’s power underneath theme – Matthew is making a point about the hiddenness of Christ, and the small and often unnoticed ways God works in our lives. Epiphanies large and small – the showing forth of God that we might miss if we aren’t paying close attention.

For Matthew this hiddenness is a kind of divine signature: instead of “showing forth” conspicuously at the Temple, God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a backwater town. And instead of “showing forth” to a crowd of supposed insiders, God will be noticed first by strangers from a foreign land, “wise ones from the East.”⁵

So, with this idea of God’s showing forth in hidden ways, let’s journey ourselves through three stories of gifts given and received, and follow a star.

First holiday gift story: Randy Heiss was walking his dog on land behind his home in Ariz., near the U.S.-Mexico border, when he saw the remnant of a red balloon. The balloon’s string was attached to a note to Santa from Dayami. He took the note home, his wife translated it from Spanish, and they set out to find the little girl who sent her Christmas list to Santa by red balloon. Figuring in prevailing winds, they realized the note had come from Mexico, and with the help of friends, were connected with a radio station in Nogales, which was willing to help them. Within days Heiss got a call from the station – they had located Dayami, an 8- year-old girl, and her family, who lived in Nogales. Would they be willing to arrange a get-together at the radio station?

Randy and his wife went and bought everything they could find that Dayami had put on her list, and a few other toys for her 4-year-old sister. Then the Heisses took the 45 minute drive across the border into Nogales, to meet the girls and their parents. Heiss said, “It was a beautiful, beautiful experience; [and] quite healing for us.” Nine years ago, he and his wife lost their only child, and they have no grandchildren. As he put it, “Being around children at Christmastime has been absent in our lives,” He considered it a “miracle” that he spotted the balloon at all, let alone was able to locate Dayami and her family. “We now have friends for life,” Heiss said. “And, for a day, that border fence with its concertina wire melted away.”⁶

Second holiday gift story: Three years ago, Owen Williams and his wife moved into a new neighborhood in the town of Barry, Wales and befriended their neighbor, an octogenarian. When their daughter, Cadi, was born a year later, their neighbor, Ken Watson, became a grandfather figure to her. Sadly, Watson died this past October. One Monday this December, Watson’s daughter stopped by the Williams home with a large bag of 14 wrapped Christmas presents her father had bought and wrapped for little Cadi. “I kept reaching into the bag and pulling out more presents,” Owen said. “It was quite something.” “Ken always told us he’d live till he was 100-years-old, so these gifts would have taken him up to our little girl’s 16th Christmas.” They’ve decided to open one a year, sharing stories of their neighbor with their daughter, so she grows up knowing him, as they think he would have wished. And the family encourages everyone who was so touched by their story to reach out and get to know their own neighbors, we are meant to live in community.⁷

Third holiday gift story: Former NFL player Warrick Dunn has founded an extensive charity network. One of the programs is the Home for the Holidays housing program which helps single-parent families achieve first-time homeownership. Working with Habitat for Humanity, this program provides complete home furnishings and down payment assistance and comprehensive programming to make homeownership and financial independence possible. Dunn’s mother was a police officer and worked security shifts as well, to provide for her six children – she was killed in a robbery attempt when Warrick was 18, and he had to fight to keep his 5 younger siblings together, and to provide for them all.

Warrick started this program in 1997 and has helped over 160 families so far; providing families with a positive home environment, so children can thrive educationally, socially and economically.⁸ This program is remarkable in its ability to understand the depth of the needs involved – providing: education, nutrition support, and financial literacy programming, in addition to housing and furniture. Grace upon grace.

As for Our Star: we have two girls: Shy and Natalia, who are members of the Boys and Girls Club in Portland. You may have seen them at Governor Mills’ swearing in ceremony, where they sang Alicia Keyes’ “Girl on fire.”⁹ If you saw them sing you understand- they were amazing: brave and passionate – and they stole the show. These two New Mainer girls, singing their hearts out in front of a packed civic center. Ablaze with the hope they embody for so many.

It’s Epiphany Sunday, and God shows forth in our lives. Sometimes in great ways: lighting up the sky or the stage, and our hearts. Sometimes in small ways: little gifts of care for another, carefully wrapped and set aside. But whether the signs are large or small, we can be certain that God shows up at unexpected times and in unexpected places. And God tends to work outside the power structures and beyond the limelight. If Alicia Keyes had come to the Civic Center to sing her song, it would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have brought us to tears of joy and cheers of hope… like two little girls did, singing that same song, little ones who represent so many who have overcome so much. Empowered with a resilience we all need to believe in, bright lights shining out in the darkness – “this girl is on fire” indeed.

This Epiphany, may we attune our hearts to see God – however, wherever, and through whomever God appears. May we open our hearts and hands to receive unexpected gifts of grace, and be those who bring God’s gifts to others. Amen.


[1] Showings: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany, January 2, 2019, Saltproject.org.

[2] Rev. Brian Krause, Spiritual Care Coordinator, Heartland Hospice, Fremont, Ohio, Luther Seminary’s GodPause, January 3, 2019.

[3] Niveen Sarras, Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12, Workingpreacher.com, January 6, 2019.

[4] Showings: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany, January 2, 2019, Saltproject.org.

[5] Showings: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany, January 2, 2019, Saltproject.org.

[6] Amy B Wang, A girl in Mexico attached her Christmas list to a balloon. A man across the border found it. The Washington Post, December 21, 2018.

[7] Allison Klein, A dying man bought 14 years worth of Christmas gifts for his 2- year-old neighbor, The Washington Post, December 18, 2018.

[8] From the website for Warrick Dunn Charities: wdc.org

[9] Shy Paca, 11, and Natalia Mbadu, 10, of Maine’s Boys & Girls Clubs, sang Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.”

Watch it here: https://www.newscentermaine.com/article/news/politics/watch-shy-and-natalia-perform-alicia-keys-girl-on-fire-at-mills-inauguration/97-84c8bc66-f51b-4ef3-b90a-39e9757915d5