“The Gift of Nothing That Means Everything”
Notes on a Congregational Reflection
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
This Sunday’s “preaching moment” consisted of some congregational reflection out loud together, and a broadly unscripted reflection by Tanya—though the notes and thoughts included in the dialogical/mostly extemporaneous time are detailed below.
Introduction to the Theme:
Holidays/festival times reveal things to us about ourselves, and those we’re in closest relationship to.
Jesus, like us, grew up knowing the joy and stress of holidays. Every year, he participated in various family and cultural traditions. For example, he made pilgrimage to Jerusalemwith his extended family to be with family and religious community to worship and celebrateand share life.
And in the process, he learned about his family, and his family and community learned about him—and they all grew in their knowledge and understanding of God if they remained attuned to God’s presence in the midst of them.
I’ve served many churches across years of my ministry, and learned from each of them. A Wheatley church tradition—on Christmas morning, the congregation collectively provided the sermon along with me. It was a good tradition! Helps us to learn that God can and potentially will speak through any of us.
We all listen to the Scripture text together, and then reflect on the same theme year after year, as it relates to us today and to the question: What was your best present/favorite gift this year? (Some people talked about their favorite material gift; others didn’t confine their greatest gift to the things they unwrapped on Christmas morning.) It’s a tradition we’re going to practice and maybe even start here this morning.
(Congregational reflections on their favorite present/best gift this year.)
Note that our first Scripture text described Hannah making an annual trip to the Temple to give her son, Samuel, a gift. She had been given the gift of a son after much prayer and longing, and had promised God that if she received her heart’s desire she would give him as a gift back to God, in service in the Temple. She was true to her promise, and made an annual trip to visit her son and give him a present of a little cloak. It must have been a poignant moment each year—a mother observing with wonder the child she had given birth to, growing and changing and becoming the person God had in mind for him to become. He, embracing the mother who had given him life, and whose imprint was upon him in so many ways even if he didn’t know her as well as he might have liked to have, even if she wasn’t personally disciplining and raising him in a more traditional fashion—that rearing was largely being entrusted to Eli, the priest who was mentoring Samuel. There were all sorts of gifts being described in that passage.
Read: “The Gift of Nothing” by Patrick McDonnell– a book/gift given to Joel with an empty box. (https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gift-of-nothing-patrick-mcdonnell/1100293397?ean=9780316114882#/) It’s a cartoon storybook about two pets/best friends that culminates with the gift of no thing, but the gift of personal presence. Awareness. Relationship. The best gifts are invariably those of relationship. Of feeling known and understood, and appreciated or cherished.
Jesus traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem every year. He was 12 years old, and had done this every year. He knew the drill. He also wanted his family to know and understand him. In our Gospel text, Jesus’ family has been anxiously searching for him—in Luke 2:49, when they discover him in the Temple and demand to know why he’s “treated [them] this way”, Jesus responds: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” “But,” Luke tells us in verse 50, “they did not understand what he said to them.”
We think we know and understand those we love: and often, we do know and understand things about them that they don’t or understand about themselves. None of us sees or understands ourselves completely, that’s why we need others in our life, and it’s how we help each other. It’s also how we see God at work more clearly (in ourselves and through each other). But in order to truly understand others, we must be willing to allow them to reveal themselves as they understand themselves. We need to ask questions, seek truth beyond what we think we know or understand, by inviting the truth and perspective of the other. This can only come through intentionally spending time, willingly practicing trust, voluntarily being vulnerable. Dispensing with the desire to feel in control by presuming to know or define the other, and allowing our understanding to be shaped by more than our own thoughts or experiences. Also, a reciprocal willingness to share what we know and understand to be true about our own self.
One of the greatest gifts we can give (or receive!) is that of presence, of attentiveness, of a deeper opening of ourselves to be known, and to know the other as they yearn to be known. This is precisely what God shed glory and power in exchange for humble human flesh to teach us, in the person of Jesus.