“Gifts” / I Corinthians 12:1-11 / 17 January 2016
“Now, there are varieties of gifts,” the Apostle Paul tells his readers, “varieties of gifts.” Don’t we know it? If there was no variety of gifts, if there were only a few possible gifts, then Christmas and birthdays would be easy. All men’s gifts would be neckties, and all women’s gifts would be bottles of perfume. You could do all your Christmas shopping on December 24, right before hurrying over here for church: Wife, perfume! Daughter #1, perfume! Daughter #2…perfume! But no, there are varieties of gifts; the possibilities are nearly endless. And wherever there is variety and possibility, there are misunderstandings and mistakes…and the need for simple acceptance.
Did you get Christmas right this year? Did everyone on your list like the things you got for them? It’s so hard knowing what to buy for people. In my experience there are two kinds of families when it comes to gift-giving. There are those families where a gift is sacred, and there are other families where gift-giving is pragmatic. For the first kind of gift-givers, those who hold the philosophy that gifts are sacred, it doesn’t matter what the gift is; it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. A gift comes to you from someone you love, and so it’s prized and precious. Of course, whenever these kinds of people select a gift for you, they’re hoping you’ll like it. But they would never expect you to return their gift to the store, even if you hate it, because it came from them. You never trade it in for some other gift. And above all, you never ever sell a gift at a garage sale! Gifts are someone’s expression of love to you, and so you cherish them…even if you don’t like them. And perhaps once a year when Aunt Alma comes to call, you’ve got to rifle around the attic to find the ceramic cat that she gave you at your wedding, the one that she painted herself in a ceramics class—it made her so proud—and you put that ugly cat on the mantel where she’ll see it. And even if she never says a word about it, at least she’ll see it sitting there, and she’ll say to herself, “Look, there’s the cat I made for them. They love me.” And when she bids you good-bye and shuffles home to Altoona, well, it’s back to the attic with the ceramic cat. That’s how it was in the family I grew up in. Gifts were sacrosanct because they sprang from relationships that were at least supposed to be treasured, even if they were not always treated with so much care. Gifts were a way for the giver to take part in the life of the receiver.
In another family—one into which I may or may not have married—gift giving is not a sacred transaction. It’s more like bartering. You make lists of things you want; you give those lists to people who are going to give you gifts. It’s not unlike a bride and groom registering at Target, except it’s a do-it-yourself gift registry. Giving gifts is all about…negotiations, getting what you want. And surely if someone loves you, the logic goes, then they want you to have the things you want and need, right? Sometime in September—as soon as you can smell the first whiff of winter on the evening air—you call your family and tell them what you want them to get you for Christmas. And if the big day arrives, and you find that they got all sentimental or adventurous in their gift-giving; if they gave you something you didn’t order, then you return it to the store the following day, promptly at 9am. You come home with something you actually want. What do they expect, you told them what to get you?
At times, someone who may or may not be my sister-in-law will even buy gifts for her own children, then she’ll call Michelle and me and tell us how much we owe her, because those gifts were supposed to be from us. Forget about Aunt Alma’s ceramic cat, the one that she painted lovingly just for you! Give that cat back, buy yourself a pressure washer, and send Aunt Alma the bill! There really could be a TV reality show about this kind of giving. It took me years to learn how it worked. But now that I understand how gifts work in that other family, holidays and birthdays are pretty easy for me. A certain person tells me what I’m going to get her, and then a few weeks prior to the celebration, she just buys it for herself and tells me it’s from me.
Don’t you wish the gifts of God worked according to the rules of those people who may or may not be my in-laws? Don’t you wish you could barter for the things you wanted, purchase what you thought you needed, send the bill to the heavenly court? But alas. Divine wisdom gives us what we need, then ours is the task of figuring out how to make meaningful use of it, how to give back, and perhaps even how to enjoy it.
“Now, there are varieties of gifts,” First Corinthians tells us, “but it is the same Spirit who gives them all, and all for the common good.” Yes, varieties of gifts, some are good speakers and others are deep listeners; some are skilled at diagnosing problems, and others are good at seeing solutions; some are good at bringing people together and others are better one-on-one; some bring the gift of music and others the gift of language or some other art. There are scientific minds, and poetic minds, and those beautiful, complex minds that somehow happen to be both, and all of it a gift! When the preacher stands in the pulpit to speak, he’s faced with Greek-minded people, all of them asking, “Is this true?” And he’s faced with Roman-minded people, all asking, “Does this work?” He’s faced, too, with Hebrew-minded people, who ask, “Does this make for wholeness?” Sometimes it’s downright frustrating how diverse a creation humanity is, but surely the Creator delights in it all. When the Apostle wrote these words to the church at Corinth, he was talking to people who didn’t especially like each other, people who refused to see the beauty in one another. And that’s a great sadness, for when we fail to see the beauty in another of God’s children, we cause that person—or group of people—to doubt the beauty in themselves. You’ve probably been the victim of that at some point in your life, and you’ve probably returned the favor in kind. Oh, to accept the gifts we’ve been given, to learn to use and love them! For who can accept another without first accepting himself or herself? How many tormented and unkind souls have you known who, deep down, refused to accept themselves and who responded by bullying and criticizing and terrorizing others for the good gifts that God has given them?
We talk a lot about the Meyers-Briggs personality types at our house. It comes with the territory. Meyers-Briggs classifies the human family into sixteen basic sorts of personalities, using eight letters in sixteen possible configurations. For example, I’m an “INFP,” or an idealist. I recently saw a chart that breaks down the sixteen types according to Star Wars characters. In our family, we’ve got an ESFP, which makes you an Ewok. We’ve got an INTJ, which makes you the evil emperor Palpatine. We’ve got an ENTJ, which makes you Princess Leia. And we’ve got me, an INFP. I get to be Luke Skywalker. I’d have preferred to be Yoda or Obi Wan—somebody wise, and calm, and courageous—but we don’t get to choose our giftedness, do we? In fact, the “I” on the Meyers-Briggs stands for introvert. It means that though I love people, I need a lot of alone time in order to love them and serve them to the best of my abilities. That “I” is an unwanted gift, but one that I must accept and understand, and one that I rely on others to accept and understand.
Yes, gift-giving seems hard the week before Christmas when we’re at the mall puzzling over what to get who. Gift-giving can seem hard, but harder by far is gift-accepting! Who does not look at his or her own gifts with a little disappointment and ask, “How did I get socks and underwear when my brother over there got a Red Ryder BB Gun—the very thing I wanted?” Sometimes we open the presents that we find in the Christmas stocking of our life, and in it we find gifts we don’t especially want, things like patience, or a ready smile, or curiosity, or a personality trait that’s always getting us in trouble. Some people open up those stockings and find hard-to-accept things, things they never, never would have chosen, things that will make life tough: a sexual orientation that others will not understand; a kind of intelligence that makes them unpopular; membership in a race or clan that is not loved by those in power. And what are they to do? Accept it! Embrace it; it is God’s gift to them. Then ask for wisdom to use it wisely and well!
Besides, if we got to choose our own gifts, wouldn’t we pick some very foolish things? How poor a world where everyone predictably chose money, beauty, and power!With the Powerball lottery at 1.5 billion and even non-gamblers buying tickets, I saw an article entitled “Here’s What You Should Do If You’re Unlucky Enough to Win the Lottery.” The article spoke of the miserable fates that befell lottery winners, nearly all of them: overdoses, murders, kidnappings, broken families, and ironically enough, bankruptcies! If you win any lottery, the article said, do not tell anyone. Do not rush to claim your money. First, engage a partner from a large, national law firm, and don’t settle for any of his underlings. Never hire a local firm, either. Then get cash and go into hiding—forever. Your home, your friendships, your career, most of the things that bring you joy and happiness, they will all have to be sacrificed to a new life of circling the wagons and watching your back. Of course, the comments at the bottom of that online article mostly said things like, “That’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having.” But they’re wrong. If we could give ourselves the gifts we think we need, if we could have the gifts we wanted, then much of the time we would end up so painfully unhappy.
And you with your handful of odd and unexpected gifts! Such a strange assortment of gifts you possess, the skills, the interests, the relationships, the tendencies, the passions, the points of view. You with those gifts that you take for granted or maybe even despise! You with your socks and underwear! Don’t you know that you might play with a Red Ryder BB Gun for two or three years, but you’ll need socks and underwear every day of your life? How much happier would you be to own what you have than to pine for all that might poison you? How much happier to find ways to put your own giftedness to work in the life of the world?
Just before Christmas, I read a beautiful sermon by a very popular Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz Weber. She’s an iconoclastic minister who wears formal clerical shirts, the ones that are favored by Lutheran clergy with the little white square in the front. But she’s cut the sleeves off of these doggedly traditional shirts; she’s made them into clerical muscle shirts to reveal all her many religious tattoos. She’s got tattoos for every season of the liturgical calendar: Advent tattoos with a star of Bethlehem, Lenten tattoos with crosses and nails, Epiphany tattoos with wise men and camels. Her skin looks like a window at Heinz Chapel. She curses in sermons, too. I recoil from clergy who call attention to themselves with shock value and all manner of gimmicks. But this woman is an excellent writer and an outstanding preacher to boot. You can find her by Googling “Sarcastic Lutheran.” She wouldn’t need the tattoos to set herself apart, or the cursing, or the muscle shirts, for offers amazing insights into the life of faith.
In any case, Bolz Weber gets a lot of public speaking engagements, and at one such event, during the question-and-answer period, a middle-school girl raised her hand and nervously asked, “What advice would you give to someone who might be bullied and not have many friends and who is maybe someone other kids pick on?” In that moment, the sarcastic Lutheran said this: “Look kid. I’m so sorry that’s happening and I totally get it because I’ve been there. But as horrible as it is right now…just do whatever you can to get through it because I promise you one thing: grown ups who were bullied in middle school and survive it, are like, 10 times cooler and more interesting as adults than the ones who were doing the bullying. You get through this and you’re gonna be amazing. I promise you. Those kids will be nothing but a footnote later on. I mean, come on…who wants to reach their life’s peak in middle school?” The girl’s face changed, and her anxiety turned to hope. Surely the other kids don’t like her because she’s got some gift that sets her apart, a gift that they cannot comprehend. Someday, God willing, she will make the choice to own the gifts she’s been given; she’ll lay claim to them, embrace them, learn to love them even if they’re not what she would have chosen for herself when she was younger. And if she can make that jump to self-acceptance, then she’ll add her rare gift to the life or the world, and we’ll all be the better for it.
We all of us occasionally long for the lives we’ll never get to live, but how about the lives we’ve got? Are they not the stuff of someone’s else’ longing? Oh, for the freedom and the wisdom to accept the gifts we’ve got, the very gifts that Sophia—or “Divine Wisdom”—chose to give us! It just takes us all so long to learn that what we are is not just good enough; it’s good! And what we have is not just enough; it is more than enough. And from these gifts we can fashion lives of beauty and purpose, taking pleasure in their exercise and finding meaning in their work. It takes so long to accept ourselves, and we cannot begin the hard work of accepting others until we’ve accepted us. How many people do you know who are struggling with their gifts—refusing to accept them, failing to see them for the things of beauty that they are? Are you perhaps one such person? “There are varieties of gifts, given by the Spirit for the common good.” And the greatest joy of all is finding some meaningful, pleasurable way to put our gifts to work in the life of the world. The sweet little nun who served as my thesis adviser at Colgate Rochester Divinity School said something that has blessed me for years. She said, “You’re a gift to the church.” I needed to hear those words because I, like you, don’t always feel like a gift—as per last week’s sermon. I might have asked for a very different set of gifts from the ones I got. Fortunately, someone wiser than I is handing out the big gifts in this life. “There are varieties of gifts,” and you don’t always get what you want. But joy comes in learning to want what you’ve got. Amen.