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Gifts and possessions

September 10th, 2007 by isaac · 4 Comments

Title: Gifts and possesions
Date: Sept 9, 2007
Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33.

What does it mean to receive a gift? Or, more to the point, what does it mean to receive your very life as a gift?

Last night many of us got together for a baby shower to anticipate and celebrate this new baby girl, Chris and Melinda’s coming child. Now it’s very apparent that Chris and Melinda are preparing to receive this child as a gift, a mysterious gift—knit together by God in her mother’s womb, as our Psalm for today says.

And part of what it means to receive this gift is to prepare. So Chris and Melinda have been putting together the baby’s room—buying a crib, painting the room. They are making space in their world for this child, creating a welcoming environment in order to receive this gift. And we, in a very small way, also help with these preparations—we give them gifts, things they need for when the child comes.

With such wonderful future parents, I think it’s safe to say that this child will know that she is a gift. They, and we, will welcome her into our busy lives as a gift.

(pause)

But I know that’s not the case for all of us. Some of us didn’t have good parents, and some of us weren’t really received into our homes as gifts. And even if we were, it doesn’t take too long to realize that we don’t go about our lives in the most hospitable world. At our jobs, on the streets, it becomes quite clear pretty quickly that we are not unconditionally received as gifts. Instead, we are welcomed with conditions and requirements.

It’s about how productive we are. It’s about the skills or knowledge we are acquiring that make us valuable. It’s about personal development so we can increase our worth. It’s about how well we can fit together, how we get along, in a department or in a work force or in a social group—does our presence contribute to the overall plan, the goals, the mission. This is the same sort of thing that happens when people start talking about being good citizens, contributing to society, serving your country—it’s all about how you and I and the people we meet are important only when we fit into the larger purpose for society, for the economy, for culture.

Sadly, this is how I hear the people on the news and on the streets talk about the immigration issue. It’s important to welcome immigrants, even the illegal ones, because they fill an important role in society—we need them to do the jobs that most people don’t want to do. We need them to work the fields. We need them to clean hotel rooms. We need them to keep the economy rolling. We need them for productivity. They are not gifts in and of themselves. We receive them, not because they are fearfully and wonderfully made as our Psalm says, but because they might be valuable for society.

It’s also interesting to see how the language of “gifts” or “giftedness” is used in reference to people. We more often talk about people having gifts, or being gifted, instead of being in and of themselves a gift. Gifts become possessions, something we have and acquire—like adding a new program or software to a computer to increase its usefulness.

But our passage from Psalm 139 challenges us to think of ourselves and others as gifts, wonderful and mysterious gifts. Not people with gifts, but people who are gifts, whose very being is gift, whose existence is gift—a gift birthed from the depths of God’s love.

For it was you who formed my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

(pause)

Paul’s letter to Philemon starts to make sense of what happens when we come to see each other as gifts, not possessions. The issue is an escaped slave: Onesimus. We don’t know much about the situation other than Onesimus left his owner, Philemon, who appears to be one of Paul’s converts and now fellow-worker in spreading the gospel. And now Onesimus is to return to Philemon, and face the consequences of his escape.

But Paul intervenes with this letter, and we are in a position to eavesdrop. What’s so striking, at least to me, is the way Paul uses the language of family to change Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus from master-slave, to brothers. Paul sets himself up at the mutual father of Philemon and now Onesimus. Paul is the father of their faith; he shared the gospel with them. So now, this master and this slave are brothers. As Paul says, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Not a slave, not a possession, but a beloved brother.

Paul is giving Philemon a chance to come to receive this person, his former slave, as a beloved brother, an equal, a gift, a mysterious gift, fearfully and wonderfully made, beyond mastery and possession.

I wonder if this is also part of the challenge of our gospel reading from Luke—Jesus’ difficult teaching about family: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

What if this—these family relationships—are also about the way we turn people into possessions? After his harsh words against the family, Jesus ends with a call to give up possessions: “So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v33). I think it’s a mistake to think possessions here is about money and wealth—that’s just not part of the context.

What if the family, and all the expectations and demands that come with family, turn people into possessions? Since you are my son or daughter, you will take over the family business. Since you are my wife, you will raise the kids. Since you are part of this family, you cannot marry that person or pursue that line of work or hang out with those people because it will bring dishonor to this household.

Family becomes a way to force people into positions, to control them, to master them, instead of receiving them again and again as a gift, fearfully and wonderfully made.

The challenge of the gospel is to come to receive one another as unexpected gifts, mysterious gifts, people held in existence by the constant loving embrace of our God. Listen to the Psalmist again: “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you” (v18). As Paul would say, we can now receive one another as beloved brothers and sisters, not slaves, not possessions, not people who may have useful gifts, but people who are gifts, gifts from God.

(pause)

A couple weeks ago I was driving my usual route to get wherever I need to go—Kent street. It was in the morning. And I noticed a big tractor out in front of an old house that had been vacant for a year or so. After my day of meetings and errands I passed by that same old house, but there wasn’t a house there anymore. Well, I should say, what used to be the house was now in multiple dumpsters. The lot was completely vacant, empty, leveled—the house disappeared, erased. Apparently it had outlived its usefulness.

There’s another house, an old red brick house, that I worked on with Steve and his crew a year ago. It is a beautiful well-crafted house, but it needed some adjustment so the family who owned it could live in it. So we gutted it, we tore out everything, nothing but the studs remained inside. And then we went to work reforming the inside—changing the layout, upgrading the electrical and heating and air conditioning, moving plumbing around. It was a good house, it just needed some adjustment. The foundation stayed the same.

We are like this old brick house, not the old one near my neighborhood that was torn down. That one was torn down because it was beyond repair. It was easier to tear it down rather than reform it—to make it go away and build something else in its place.

But we are like that old brick house—carefully crafted, a gift to whomever lived there. But just because it was fearfully and wonderfully made, doesn’t mean that it could stay the same. It needed reform, some adjustment from time to time. It needs to be reformed so it can continue to be the beautiful house it was built to be.

That we are gifts isn’t an excuse to stay the way we are. We are gifts that need continual reformation. And it’s the one who created us, the one who knit us together in our mother’s womb, the one who hems you in behind and before, the one who surrounds you with love, who is also the one who takes you and me and puts us back on the potter’s wheel and changes us. We are gifts who desperately need the one who gave us to one another to continue to renew us, to grow us, to make us into that gift we are meant to be.

We learn from Jeremiah that it’s very easy for the people of God to take advantage of their gifted status, to take possession of themselves, of their gifts, instead of receiving and submitting to the constant tending of God. It was easy for Israel to make political and military alliances with foreign nations, and with foreign gods, in order to secure their future, to secure their existence.

But God does not punish Israel like that tractor demolished that house on Kent Street. Instead, God took Israel upon the potter’s wheel, and reformed what it means for them to be a gift to the nations. They will go on as Israel, as the promised people—for that cannot be taken away from them—but they will go on in exile, away from home, in foreign lands… a scattering of gifts among the nations.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. You, each of you, is a gift from God, knit together with love and care, despite what those around you may think and say. It doesn’t matter how productive you are. It doesn’t matter who counts you as friends. It doesn’t matter what your family thinks of you. Here, in this place, your gifts and possessions don’t matter so much—because you are a gift, given by God and received, welcomed, by each of us.

But that doesn’t mean you can stay the way you are. Just as God has formed us in our mother’s womb, God is knitting us to each other, molding us into a vessel for the outpouring of the good news to the nations. And when we get sown together, we get pricked with needles. It may be uncomfortable. Egos get punctured. What we thought was essential to our life, may be taken from us.

But it’s so we can learn to receive something we never asked or imagined: we come to receive each other not as possessions, but as beloved brothers and sisters, a new family, with God as our Father, and Jesus as our brother. And all we have to offer is our self, even if we don’t think we are that gifted, or that good looking, or that competent, or that spiritual. None of that matters. What matters is our presence, not presents, not what we think we can give, but our shear presence, our being, our body, with all our quirkiness.

And we offer our very self to the hands of our God, and begin the process of becoming something more, something mysteriously wonderful, something disfigured yet promising. As we are broken, laid upon the potter’s wheel, new light shines from the cracks. We become the church, the broken body of Christ, the flesh of our Lord who is our gift to the world. Our gift is our presence.

Tags: sermons

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph Rowe // Sep 11, 2007 at 10:04 am

    I have three friends who are legal Immigrants they cant get a good job because they are outnumbered ten to one by Illegals and they dare not say anything!! is this fair? I think not! And as for filing a need they do for the greedy who hire them! There are plenty citizens who would do this work but not for what the greedy are paying the illegals so I say punish the greedy with BIG fines!! and the work will dry up and the illegals wont be able to pay the rent or buy food or send money home so more then likely they will go home! The RoweShow

  • 2 katie // Sep 17, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Dear Mr. Rowe,
    I am sorry to read your heartless comment – wanting “illegal” immigrants (or in other language – hard working, sacrificing individuals) to starve. And I’m sorry your friends cannot find a “good job” – you must mean picking lettuce in the heat of the day, cleaning toilettes or washing dishes as these jobs are the ones where illegals primarily work. Maybe your friends should just try a bit harder…and take a few lessons from their friends south of the border.

  • 3 Mel // Sep 18, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    This is a really nice sermon, Isaac. I’m on a committee with Bruce Harder at church. I am going to show him this next time we meet.

  • 4 scott // Sep 21, 2007 at 6:17 am

    Hey Isaac,

    Great sermon. Sorry to ask you here, but I don’t have your email address for some reason. I’m trying to hunt down any resources I can find by Yoder on liberation theology and/or economic issues, the poor, etc.

    I’ve been sifting through Nation’s bibliography – but I just wanted to mention that if you have any particular suggestions, or if you happen to have found some of that stuff online, please do let me know.

    Hope you are well. Peace,
    scott