During the season of Epiphany, of revelation, we ponder the story of the Magi who came from the East to visit the Christ child. There are so many levels in which this account recorded in the Gospel of Matthew captures our attention and reveals much practical truth for us:
- “Wise men still seek Him.”
- Christ came for all people, in all cultures and communities.
- God guides us to Jesus.
- Evil cannot overcome God’s plans, etc.
These are some of the sermons I have preached over the years from this text, found in Matthew’s second chapter. Also, we never tire of considering the gifts of the Wise Men: gold, frankincense and myrrh. What Christmas pageant is complete without three children dressed in ornate bathrobes and tin foil crowns bearing three boxes of precious gifts? Surely once again, during this season of Epiphany, we are called to honor Christ with our gifts.
I witnessed virtual gifts of the Magi during my recent trip to India with youth on the Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ) Mission of Peace and with fellow bishops participating in a continuing education event led by Bishop Suda Devadhar of the New England Conference. We began our journey just after Christmas, and it continued into the New Year and the season of Epiphany.
India was well-decorated for the Christmas season, even though only about 2.5 percent of the population is professed Christian. Everywhere our group of 35 participants traveled we saw crèches with figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds and the Wise Men bearing symbolic precious gifts. I also saw real gifts of real value being offered to Christ by faithful—and yes, wise—men and women throughout India.
During our trip we heard a lecture from Bishop Christopher Furtado of the Methodist Church of South India. Although Christianity in India has a history that dates back to the evangelistic work of the disciple Thomas, he explained, in the past 500 years there has been a significant amount of Western Christian mission work.
Much “gold” was given to support Christian missions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Education, medical services, linguistics, social change and modernization were brought to India through faithful mission dollars.
The predecessor body of the United Methodist Women sent their earliest missionary women doctors to India to provide health care for women who were not allowed by custom to be seen by a male doctor. Sacrificial gifts of gold came from many Christians, both locally and from the west, to build and sustain schools, orphanages, hospitals, clinics and many lives.
According to the Rev. George Howard of United Methodist Global Ministries, who shared our Epiphany journey, even though the Methodist Church of India is now an autonomous body, The United Methodist Church continues its mission giving in the amount of $500,000 each year. We no longer have missionaries serving on the ground in India, but many Volunteers in Mission teams still visit the country. And there are numerous endowed gifts for mission that Global Ministries manages and sends to India.
When we honor Christ we must always bring Him our gold, our means. Our hearts are directly connected to our wallets. Gold is truly golden when it can be used to transform lives and communities through the power of God’s spirit working through these means. How can you give more of your gold this year as your gift to the Christ child?
I saw much frankincense in India—not just the incense sticks burning in ornate brass containers that we saw in many places. Frankincense represents our worship of God.
There are numerous religious sects and forms of worship in India. There are more than 2,000 deities worshiped there, and even demons are worshiped in some remote places. The largest religious sect in India is Hindu, but other major faith communities include Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.
Our group visited the main headquarters of a religion known as the Jains. The group we visited was founded 600 years ago, and it has a huge outreach ministry of feeding the hungry. Their worship is inseparable from their teaching, ministry to the poor and giving justice (settling disputes).
We saw worship in action as the staff of 300 workers fed 30,000 people a simple meal of vegetables and rice. On the weekends they give meals to as many as 60,000 people. Their highest leader, Dr. D. Veerendra Heggade, graciously granted us an audience with him. He shared about his work and their fundamental belief in doing no harm and treating everyone as equals.
On New Year’s Eve we visited Methodist churches for worship and Holy Communion. I was invited to preach at the Wilson Garden Methodist Church in Bangalore. All of the churches are packed on New Year’s Eve, as Christians there wish to be in the house of the Lord when clocks strike midnight. Amazingly, they all then return to church the next morning at 8 am on New Year’s Day so that worship can be the first thing they do on the first day of the new year.
No one spoke English at the church where I preached, but thankfully, their bi-lingual pastor, the Rev. David Vijaykumar, kindly translated my sermon to the people. It did not matter that I did not understand their language because I could feel the presence of Christ in their soulful singing and praying. My time lingering at the altar rail during Holy Communion was also a high moment for me in fellowship with this congregation of about 200 people.
Worship could be seen at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery that we visited on one of our bright sunny mornings in India. In the 1960’s a group of Tibetan people came to India as refugees. President Nehru gave them a plot of land where they settled and created a huge colony that worships God as its central focus. The Dali Lama, their supreme leader, has visited this colony, and his picture hangs on many walls. Three gigantic golden statues of gods stood in the worship hall, where the monks spend much of their time in prayer and meditation. They graciously spoke with our Mission of Peace team and answered questions about their life of faith in this unique setting.
We honor Christ as we offer him our worship. Worship should include time with the Lord in praise, prayer, meditation, Holy Communion and receiving the Word. As we worship God we get our priorities refocused and are renewed spiritually for the work that God has called us to do. Let your worship rise continually like incense to God in this New Year, 2015.
Myrrh: Sacrifice through service
Finally I saw a good bit of “myrrh” in India, not the oil used for centuries to anoint bodies for burial, but figurative myrrh that symbolizes sacrifice. When one is in Christ they are a new creation. They are dead to their old life and newly alive in the Spirit. Jesus calls us, his followers, to daily take up our crosses, deny ourselves and live as if we were dead to the things of the world—the greed for gain, ambition for power and all the temporary, superficial attractions of worldly life.
Many people have given their lives to Christ to benefit India through their years of service as missionaries. They taught people how to read, built hospitals, supported human rights causes and created industries, such as tile-making, where people could earn living wages.
The era of missionaries coming from the West has passed, replaced by indigenous peoples doing the work of Christ mostly on their own. They are challenging the caste system that relegates people to a particular status in society and breeds discrimination. They are keeping schools, seminaries, orphanages, churches and hospitals thriving, and improving the lives of their people every day.
We met an Indian government official, Mr. Abayachandra, who shared with us his work among the youth of his country. He gathered a large group of his youth to meet with our visiting Mission of Peace team. During that time together he gave us a glimpse of how his state program is offering Indian youth opportunities for education, job training, recreation and character development.
We heard from a young Indian cardiologist at one of the mission hospitals, who explained how he is bringing modern equipment and advanced medical techniques to the people of India. He shares his life and knowledge by working at his regular job and then serving a second shift as a consulting doctor for this hospital that serves the poor. We also visited the “Opportunity School” for children with disabilities, where a staff of dedicated people strives tirelessly to educate, empower and employ those whom society often ignores.
When we give the gift of myrrh it means we are sacrificing our lives in service to others; and in so doing, we discover the true meaning of life. As Jesus said, “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39b) May each of you find new ways to give away your life sacrificially, out of your love for Christ.
I thank God for the opportunity to experience the mission and culture of India and to interact with the Mission of Peace young people again this year. (I was part of the Mission of Peace team to South Africa in 2014). We had two youth from the Eastern PA Conference participating this year: Morgan Orlowski from Grove UMC and Emma Doupe from Grandview UMC. They represented us well, and they return as two wise women bearing gifts of knowledge and understanding to share with their churches, their schools and communities, and their conference.
The Rev. Ted Anderson, a District Superintendent in the Upper New York Conference, has led Mission of Peace journeys for a number of years and has inspired young people with a vision of global peace-making. A special thanks goes to Bishop Suda Devadhar and his nephew, Dr. Mauben, who led the entourage of seven bishops—including Peter Weaver, Warner Brown, Sandra Steiner Ball, Jonathan Keaton, Violet Fisher, and myself—along with our spouses, some UMC agency staff and other interested parties and chaperones. The hospitality and the love we received during our learning experience was overwhelmingly generous.
I hope you can sense from this report the profound love that I personally experienced there in India. Even more, I pray you will remember and actively rehearse the many ways we can offer our gifts of love to Christ—our wealth (gold), our worship (frankincense) and our witness through service (myrrh). For it is Christ whom God gave to live and die for us because he loved us so much. When you offer your gifts to him generously you will be truly blessed.
As Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the renowned former missionary to India, once said, “The loving heart cannot fall, cannot fail and cannot be fruitless.” May it be so for you and your loving heart in 2015.