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Irrevocable Gifts

Sermons On The Second Reading
Series I, Cycle A
People have had a wide variety of reactions to the idea of politically--correct language. One of the more interesting is a series of books by James Finn Garner. A look at the contents of the volumes gives an insight into the way things are handled. The stories include such titles as the politically--correct bedtime story of "The Three Codependent Goats Gruff," and the holiday story of "Rudolph, the Nasally--Empowered Reindeer."

Under the humorous approach there lurks a problem that can cause us real difficulties. Today there are some terms which are not generally allowed in polite conversation: terms which are thought to be potentially offensive, even if there are no new terms to replace them. This leads to some concepts which are now, suddenly, more difficult to explain concisely. Like "Rudolph, the Nasally--Empowered Reindeer."

Consider a phrase commonly used before it became an issue to use only politically--correct language - "Indian giver." The concept behind the phrase was someone who gave a gift, and then asked for it to be returned, or even took the gift back. Today, of course, there are still people who do this, but we no longer have a convenient term describing such behavior available for our use.

But the idea of an Indian giver, if not the term itself, can serve to remind us of what Paul is speaking of in this lesson. He writes, "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." Simply stated, God is not an "Indian giver." Once given, the gifts of God are permanent, not able to be taken back.

People often receive gifts, at Christmas, on birthdays, and on other special occasions. Sometimes these gifts are less than thrilling, at least to some who receive them, like a big box of socks and underwear for Christmas when you are only eight years old. At other times the presents are much more lavish, leading to images of a child surrounded by a sea of gifts and discarded wrapping paper.

And there are times, amid the plenty, when frustrated, frazzled people turn to threats in their efforts to maintain some order. "You behave, or I'll take away your presents." Considering the way people behave, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to find that God does the same thing. "Behave, or I'll take back my gifts to you."

It certainly seems that the stories we find in the Bible about the ways people behave could easily earn us threats like that. And the Bible contains a variety of accounts of the way God punishes the people who disobey, the people who do not follow the command to be the people of God.

Paul, of course, is very aware of this history. He knows exactly how the people of God have fallen short, have failed in their efforts, have often not even made any discernable effort to live up to their promises to God. Almost like someone who is trying to lose 25 pounds to fit into a particular article of clothing, and finds oneself promising to follow one's diet faithfully - tomorrow, or as soon as the cheesecake is gone, or right after the holidays, or whenever. Somehow, those 25 pounds never seem to go away, and the clothing never gets worn.

Paul understands, and he begins with "I ask, then, has God rejected his people?" And Paul's answer is, in the original Greek, much more emphatic than the way it gets translated in most Bibles, including in our lesson. "By no means!" Or, "Certainly not!" Or, "Of course not!" All these are rather pale representations of the words in the original Greek.

In a printed document, Paul's answer should at the least be in bold type and entirely in capitals.

When the lesson is read, the answer should be spoken loudly, perhaps even shouted, "No! No! No!"

Because the gifts of God are irrevocable. So irrevocable, that even the threat of taking them back doesn't happen. It is sometimes hard to accept, but the gifts of God are given forever.

There is a need to be careful here, however. We have to understand these gifts quite well, and quite properly. They are given forever, but that does not mean the gifts are always available for our use. The gifts are irrevocable, but that does not mean that we always use them properly, or even use them at all.

Many of the gifts of God are talents and skills which must be developed. An athlete, for example, can be blessed with exceptionally quick reflexes and extremely acute eyesight. These gifts, however, do not mean that this person is ready to join a major league team without learning the rules of the game, practicing the game, and playing innumerable games in preparation for that major league debut. In a similar way, most talents and skills must be used in order to develop them fully. Our gifts are the basic talent and skills, and an ability to refine the basic talent which is also our gift from God.

We begin with potential, but that means only that we must work on that potential to bring it to its full flowering. This was exactly the case with a young lady named Mary Alice. Everyone said she had potential. And she did. But she was deeply concerned that she might misuse her potential, or that it might somehow be taken from her, or that if she used it, it would somehow be diminished and go away. So she hoarded the potential very carefully.

Mary Alice never actually used any of her potential, but she knew that no matter what else might be said of her, people would always say, "She has potential."

The story of Mary Alice is, all too often, only an extreme example of the ways we avoid our own potential, the ways we avoid using the gifts God has given us. Everyone can think of examples of people who are like Mary Alice, people who have gifts, people who have potential, but who allow their gifts to languish.

Or, perhaps, we can think of people who seem to have no gifts. President Andrew Johnson was once described by a congressman as a "self--made man." One of the president's most vocal political opponents, Thaddeus Stevens, commented that he was quite glad to hear the president was a self--made man, as that relieved the Almighty of a tremendous responsibility.

It seems obvious that any gifts we have are gifts from God. Without God and the gifts all people have been given, we have no claim to be or do anything. Even so, it can be uncomfortable to make the effort to utilize our gifts. Most often, the gifts do not merely happen, but require us to exert ourselves. Most often it is not a matter of simply applying our gifts with no further effort. In reality, we often find ourselves confronted with situations which require intense personal involvement and no promise of complete success. Instead, we face situations which require us to become personally involved, which require us to risk opening ourselves to other people and to risk getting hurt, with only a hope of success, not even a promise.

In the face of this situation, it is not surprising that some people choose not to utilize their gifts. It would seem, however, that our problems with gifts don't end with a failure to use them at all. An even more serious problem is the way it is possible to misuse our gifts.

At least in theory, the gifts we receive from God should be used to the glory of God. It seems so obvious, and yet, in practice, it is so difficult actually to do that.

We sometimes suspect that the only way to use our gifts is to work for or in the church. And there are certainly a large number of things that need to be done around the church, and a number of ways gifts can be utilized within the church. There are often opportunities for using our gifts that are not filled because people are reluctant to use their gifts, or because they don't want to use their gifts in the church, or because they are acting like Mary Alice and hoarding their potential so it won't be thrown away.

But the story of how we are to use our gifts does not end with the church. It does not end with the ways we use our gifts in furthering the mission of the church. There is a world outside the walls of the church, and everyone who is a part of the church also finds themselves in the world on a regular basis. We are also expected to use our gifts in the world.

Using our gifts to make a living, to earn an income for ourselves and our families, to find fulfillment for ourselves in our work are also ways that we should be using our gifts. We have been provided with a variety of gifts that we can use in the world for a variety of things.

Work is one thing, and we are often reminded that our work in the world provides us with more than mere sustenance. It also provides us with an opportunity to display our gifts, especially our gift for behaving ethically and responsibly. By setting an example for those around us, by acting appropriately, we also act as witnesses to the God who gave us these gifts.

In many ways this is the way it works with all our gifts. We have been given these gifts, and we are expected to use them responsibly and ethically, as a form of witness to the God who gave them to us as our irrevocable gifts. This is the responsibility that comes attached to the gifts: that we use them as we witness to the love of God in our lives.

That responsibility can be troubling. It can lead people to look at the gifts of God in the same way we sometimes look at the gifts we receive from other people. There is always the relative who thinks no one ever ages past the age of seven, and somehow manages to give gifts which are quite inappropriate. Or the clothing that is at least two sizes off, either too large or too small. Or the third or fourth copy of the same gift. Or almost anything that is not completely appropriate.

To handle these problems, many stores set up special "gift return counters" on the day after Christmas to accommodate the long lines of customers who have gifts to return. Some people even give gifts with receipts enclosed in envelopes so the gifts can be returned more easily. If the gift isn't what we want, we often return it.

It isn't quite that easy with God's irrevocable gifts. Sometimes the gifts are difficult for us to cope with. The gifts present us with duties and responsibilities that appear to be beyond our capacity. Giving the gift back begins to look like an option with promise, if only promise of relief from the demands of the gifts.

Our biggest problem is that when we begin to turn our backs on God's gifts, we very quickly, even without meaning to, turn our backs on the ultimate gift of God's mercy, as it was shown to us on a cross.

We try to cope with the gifts, we try to use them responsibly and ethically, and we fall short, we fail in our efforts, we sin. When we are honest, we know we are not what we should be. We don't live up to the gifts we have been given.

There is a way to arrange one's possessions known as an irrevocable trust. This is often used as a way to arrange the final disposition of a person's belongings and resources, both for the remaining years of life and after death. While the idea is attractive, and often quite beneficial, there is one important aspect to the arrangement that must be taken into account. As an irrevocable trust, if your ideas about what should be done with your belongings and resources change, the instrument is extremely difficult to change.

The concept of an irrevocable trust is what God has given us in his Son. We have been given an irrevocable gift, something that is never taken back, something that never can be taken back. We have been given God's mercy, God's love, as an irrevocable gift. What we do with the gift is our witness to God, our reflection of God to the world. Amen.
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