Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – or what?

THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY

1st January, 2012

St Matthew’s, Guildford

Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

As some of you are aware – and the rest are about to be – St Matthew’s was broken into sometime between 10.30 on Christmas morning and 4 o’clock Wednesday afternoon.  J had the more-than-uncomfortable experience of finding the vestry door levered open, and she, B & C and G & D found several brass items and much of our sound equipment stolen.

If you’ve ever experienced the results of a break-in at your home, you know that there is a dreadful sense of violation; and if things have been stolen, you feel the loss of your “treasure”; not forgetting the inconvenience of having to report to police and insurance, and, often, of having to clean up the mess left behind.

In the case of this week’s break-in at St Matthew’s, I am thankful that there was no messy, mindless vandalism, such as is often experienced in break-ins, and such as happened here a good number of years ago and remains in the corporate memory .  I am thankful to those who discovered and sorted out the results of the burglary, including G, who has repaired the vestry door and significantly increased its security.

As to what we have lost, initially, the missing items were the candlesticks from the altar and those on stands behind the altar, the smaller of our processional crosses (the “Mothers’ Union” one) and the big brass cross which sat on the rear wall behind the altar, as well as most of our microphones, leads, the sound mixer and the remote microphone and transceiver.

All of the sound system stuff can be easily enough replaced, and undoubtedly will be through our insurance.  The brass items, though are of greater significance, due to their age and/or to their – what antique dealers call – “provenance”, by whom and in memory of whom they were given.  Their value as “treasure” lies more in the “sentimental value” than in the actual metal from which they were made.

Yesterday morning, the P’s and R’s and, I think, K, were in the vestry and found – in the robe cupboard, of all places! – the MU cross and the candlesticks which you can now see back in their rightful place behind the altar.  I’m certain that these folk were, like the Magi in today’s Gospel, “overwhelmed with joy”!  🙂

All this has me thinking about what we each regard as “treasure”.  The Magi brought treasure of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” to present to the infant Jesus and his parents.  While we may see various ways of interpreting the meaning of the individual gifts, the simple fact is that these visitors “from the East” gave things which were expensive and highly prized in their world.  They gave of their treasure to show honour and respect to “the child who has been born king of the Jews”.

On many items to be found in churches everywhere, one can often read inscriptions like “AMDG” (to the greater glory of God) and/or “in memory of….”.  When a new church is built, individuals and other congregations often give gifts for God’s service in that new building.  And there are many such gifts here in St Matthew’s – the most recent being the memorial book stand here in the sanctuary near the organ.  It is right and good that such things be given, and it is right and good that such things be treasured by the church in perpetuity.  We serve God and give God homage by such gifts.

At the same time, we always have to beware of valuing any ornament or building of the church too highly.  The line between honour and idolatry is sometimes very fine.  Witness the way in which many more fervent Protestants decry the Catholic use of images and statues in church.  Many of the more critical will call all such things idols and accuse the good Catholic of “worshipping” the statues and the Saints, while the good Catholic knows that such items are an aid to the worship of God.  History tells us that the Puritans, under Oliver Cromwell and the “Republic” in England, put great effort into destroying much of the church’s finery and ornamentation.

Yet, in last week’s Psalm, we read, “Worship the LORD in holy splendour”, which in the KJV and one of our old hymns reads, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”.

And, if you read of the splendour of the Israelite “tent of worship” (the Tabernacle) and the later Temples of Israel, you cannot but be overwhelmed by the descriptions of fabrics, garments, utensils and gold-covered ornaments found therein.

When something of the “treasure” of the church is stolen, vandalised or destroyed, we are appropriately distressed.  And it is right that we seek to restore and replace where possible.  We are, after all, only ever “trustees” of this place and its treasures.

But, hurt and violated as we inevitably feel, we cannot and must not lose hope, nor let damage and theft take us down.  We are God’s people, and we do not cease to be because of loss or damage.  If St Paul were writing his letter to the Romans to us, his chapter 8 would say, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, – nor break-ins, nor burglary – nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Perhaps this week’s intrusion can help us to focus (? refocus) on what is the real treasure of the church, and especially that of St Matthew’s.  In our recent “visioning” process, we enumerated the assets of the parish, including our beautiful church and hall, our wonderful location in the middle of a superb park, in a “heritage town”.  Within this building, we have many treasures of brass and wood, and plaques commemorating people and events.  But, above, all, we have people!

The story is told of the deacon, Lawrence, who was martyred in Rome in the year 258.  Wikipedia has it thus:

After the death of [Pope] Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Lawrence worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church.

Week by week, when we come to church, we bring our offerings – not usually gold, frankincense or myrrh! – but certainly money for the work of the church; and many bring food for distribution to those in need through Anglicare.  It is good and right that we bring these – please keep doing so!

More importantly, though, the treasure we bring is that which St Paul calls in Romans “spiritual worship”.  His twelfth chapter begins, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

As we begin a new year and many of us make “New Year resolutions”, how about taking a little time to review what you intend giving to God, of yourself, of your time, of your money, of your energy and or your abilities?

Thus we can properly look after all that has been entrusted to us in these buildings and their contents; thus we’ll be able to care for one another; and thus we’ll be able to reach out beyond the buildings, beyond the park, to those who have yet to encounter the one born to be King.

The Lord be with you!

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