WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
May 4, 2014
Almost everyone has a memory of a gift they have either given or received that was so ugly, or so wildly inappropriate, or just so strange that they would have returned it in an instant if they possibly could. It’s become so much of a cultural cliché that there are sit-com episodes about the clueless husband who gives his wife an iron for Valentine’s day and there are advertisements at Father’s day about what to get Dad besides yet another tie and there are parties at work dedicated to wearing ugly Christmas sweaters.
I think the most unusual – no, it was more than that. I think the weirdest gift I ever got was when I was probably 12 or so. It was a Christmas gift from Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred. Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred were known for giving unusual gifts. They were thrifty people, and when it came to gifts they truly and rightly believed that it is the thought that counts.
I remember that particular Christmas receiving two gifts from Xoa and Fred. The first was a pair of socks. There’s nothing wrong with that; socks can be a fine gift, although for a 12 year old boy they are kind of disappointing. But these socks were weird. They were orange and they were really, really thin, thin like hosiery. They were still on the cardboard that they had been on in the store, but they looked old and smelled a little musty and I had the impression that they’d spent several years in the attic before being plucked out of some dusty, long-forgotten trunk to become my Christmas gift that year.
The second gift was a pack of gum. Well, that’s not quite right either. The second gift was part of a pack of gum. It was a six pack of Beech-Nut gum, but it had been opened and there were only three sticks in it. And those three sticks weren’t soft like new chewing gum is supposed to be. They were really hard. And the package didn’t look like the Beech-Nut gum that was in the stores. It looked old. It looked like 1930’s old. It looked like it had been something my Uncle Fred had gotten when he was 10 or so, and that after eating some of it he’d decided to put it away for 40 years or so to give to me. Along with his new socks that he’d gotten that year.
Back then the idea of returning gifts to the store for a refund was unheard of, and even if it hadn’t been there was no way to return these gifts to anyone. I thanked them for the gifts and kept them in my room for a few years. I don’t know what ever happened to them, but if I ever find those socks and that gum I’m looking forward to figuring out who to re-gift them to.
These days when you get a gift you don’t like, it’s not too much of a problem. The gift almost always includes a special return receipt, just so you can take it back to where it was bought and get the money. I know that it’s not as busy as Black Friday, but the week after Christmas is plenty busy at the returns desk as people bring back the gifts they just received from people who love them in order to get some cash. It’s so routine that when I bought Julia some jewelry a few months ago they asked me if I wanted a gift receipt with it or not, and when she bought a handbag for herself they just automatically gave her one without asking.
God gives each of us gifts every day. The fact that you are here this morning means that you’ve been given the gift of life today. Mark has shared his gift of music with us. Don and Steve and Mary and John and Ruth and others have shared their gifts in preparing this space for worship this morning. We’ve shared our financial gifts in the offering plates today, and those financial gifts are the result of money we’ve earned through using yet other gifts and skills and talents and abilities that God has given us.
All of that is in addition to the gifts of sunshine and mild weather we’ve had this weekend, and after the winter and spring we’ve had so far those aren’t gifts to be taken for granted. They’re in addition to the gifts of family and friends, both near and far. They’re in addition to the gift of a home, a gift that many do not share. The gift of a country that for all it’s faults and all of it’s shortcomings is free of the kind of violence and fear that our brothers and sisters in Nigeria or Egypt or North Korea or other places face each day.
God has given us many gifts. The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” The gifts God gives us are given out of love, and if God has given them to us then there must be a way to use them. If God had given me the orange socks and the gum from 1932 I probably could have figured out something to do with them besides look at them and scratch my head. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, whatever they are, and in using them, return them to God.
I’ve never paid a lot of attention to investments. I’ve never had a whole lot of investments to pay attention to. As I get older, though, I find myself taking a closer look at some of the statements that come in the mail. I have a couple of retirement accounts from jobs I’ve had at one time or another that have some money in them and of course I’ve got social security. When I was thirty or thirty-five I didn’t care very much. Now that I’m fifty-five and therefore closing in on retirement age I’m reading the statements more carefully and checking out the projections of what I’d get each month depending on when I retire. I look at how much the accounts have earned or lost. I check out the return on the investments.
The concept of a return on investments is seen a few different places in the Bible. The most famous example is the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. In The Message, this passage is talking about the Kingdom of God and says,”It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, and to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.”
There’s another sense In which returns matter to God. God calls us to return our gifts through using them and sharing in offerings to God. God also calls us to get a good return on the gifts and skills that he has trusted us with.
You may remember that back in January I flew back to Ohio for a couple of days to be with my sister as she was preparing for heart surgery. I flew in to Cox International Airport in Vandalia. I grew up less than five miles from that airport. We lived on Peters Road, and you could come out of our driveway, take a right, and in five minutes be at the airport entrance. You just took a left into the airport and drove down a long driveway to the lobby with the control tower on top.
It’s sure not that way know. Peters Road now dead-ends before you get to the airport entrance. My old house is still less than five miles from airport property, but it now takes about fifteen minutes to get there because you have to loop around to the other side of the airport. The airport itself is thirty times larger than it was when I was a kid. When I was growing up it took five minutes to walk to your gate from the ticket counter. Now it takes ten minutes just to walk to the security checkpoint, and once you’re past that it’s at least ten or fifteen minutes more to get to your gate, and that’s if you have a close-in gate.
When I flew back into Cox airport in January it felt strange. It didn’t feel anything like the place I’d known growing up. But as I got into the rental car and drove through the city of Vandalia and then out into the country I got more and more excited. The country out there still isn’t built up. There are still farms. I recognized houses that had been on our bus route for school. I remembered friends and where they had lived. I drove past cousin Ron’s, and Uncle Verlynne’s place, and then past the church I grew up in. It felt familiar. It felt comforting. Even though I haven’t lived there regularly since I was in high school, it felt like I home. I felt like I had returned home.
Do any of you ever have that feeling? That you’re returning home, returning to a place and a time where you once felt comfortable and connected? Maybe home is where you grew up. Maybe home is where you live now. Maybe home isn’t about a place but about people, people with whom you feel safe and loved and cared for. Maybe it’s some combination of people and place depending on what’s going on in your life.
Like the old hymn says, there is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God. Our relationship with God is like that of the prodigal son, who wandered far away and squandered his inheritance and wanted nothing more than to be home, whose father came to greet him when he was still far from home. As the Psalm writer says, God has heard our prayers and our supplications. God has listened to us, and saved us from death. When we are with God, we are at peace. We are in safety. When we return to God, we have returned home.
We can return to God from the gifts and skills that God has given us. We can use what God has given us to spread the Kingdom even farther, and give God a good return on his investment in us. We can return to God to find warmth, and safety, and mercy, and forgiveness, and love forever. May we always look for ways to return to God, whatever that means in our lives. Amen.