Harrowing Of Hell
July 13, 2014

How to Receive Gifts

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Who has a birthday this month? Who had a birthday last month? Who has one next month? Let me ask this: Who has a birthday sometime within the year? How about Christmas: anyone here celebrate Christmas?

Today’s sermon is about gifts and how we receive them.

We might think it is easy. “Yeah, thanks for the gift.” And maybe it is, but I can’t help wondering: with so much universal access to whatever we want, whenever we want it, the way we want it, have we lost sight of the blessing of how to receive a gift and the way in which gifts magnify our souls? I guess I’m back on the sermon series about how the sanctification of our souls will bring salvation to the world.

The Gospel today is about all of the different ways to receive a gift. The metaphor is a sower and seeds. The sower is God. The seeds are God’s hopes for us. Here is how it works: God tosses the seed. It goes forth from God’s hand, and as this happens God relinquishes control over where the seed goes and how it is received.

There are four ways Jesus, the master teacher of the soul, tells us gifts are received. We can receive them on the path, on shallow ground, on thorny terrain, or on good soil. I’d like to reflect on each of these today. The pattern I’m going to follow is this: 1) to tease out the meaning behind the metaphor of the path, shallow soil, thorns, and good ground and 2) to look at how we move the seed from the place it landed to the good soil of our soul.

So we begin on the path. At first blush this might not look like so bad place for a seed to fall, but it turns out that is only the case for birds and Satan. The path is a metaphor for entitlement. Jesus says: “If you hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand it, Satan comes and snatches it from you.” Vivid!

The key for understanding the path as entitlement is that the gift is not perceived as a gift by the recipient of the gift. Satan, the tempter, whispers: “this is not a gift; this is your right; you are entitled to this.” When a gift is perceived as something we are entitled to, Satan has snatched it from our hands. We lose the power, beauty, and meaning of the gift itself. We have the thing in our possession, but it is amputated from the source of its power.

Food is a good example. We can woof it down when it lands in front of us, or we can say, “God is great and God is good, and we thank God for this food.” We can even say it when we are at a restaurant.

The antidote to entitlement is gratitude. The response is thanksgiving. Now let’s get real, if we were to thank God for all of the gifts of life, we’d never get anything done. Which is why God gave us Sunday morning to say thank you to God for all things. Whether we believe in Satan or not, a time of weekly gratitude deconstructs entitlement and is good for our souls.

So there we have the path, entitlement and the diagnostic of worship, which moves the seed from the path to the good soil of our soul.

The next way of receiving gifts is on rocky, shallow soil. Here the seed lands, springs up, and then withers due to lack of depth. The shallow soil is a metaphor for vanity. When we receive a gift on the shallow soil of our lives we find ourselves caring more about what other people think of the gift than what we think about the gift ourselves.

Let me give you example. When I was a kid I grew out of my bike. I had been riding my sister’s old bike, because mine was too small. So my dad struck upon the idea of having a bar welded on my sister’s bike to make it a boy’s bike. He and I went and got a bar welded on the frame. It took a week to get back. We replaced the big handlebars with cool dirt bike handlebars, and we put knobby wheels on it. It was so cool, and I rode it all around the neighborhood with my friends that summer and really loved it… until that first day of school.

I pulled up to the bike rack, and some kid on his BMX bike said, “Hey, that looks like a girl’s bike with a bar on it.” I denied it of course, but from that point on I was less enamored with that bike, and I stopped riding it to school as often. I wanted to throw it away, because every time I looked at it I heard that kid’s voice, and my vanity trashed my joy.

And so how does one move the seed from the shallow soil of vanity to the good soil of the soul? The key is considering the source of the gift. Who gave it? Gifts that land on the shallow soil of our lives are often gifts given with the most consideration and love. That was certainly the case with this bike. I remember the joy on my dad’s face when he watched me take that bike over a jump I built in the driveway.

When we are feeling bad about a gift we’ve received, take the gift back into the presence of the giver, and your heart will be liberated by the love that they put into giving it to you in the first place. This moves the seed from shallow-soil vanity to the good soil of the soul.

So we have the path, entitlement, and the diagnostic of Sunday worship. We have shallow soil, vanity, and seeing the gift through the eyes of the giver.

Now we have the thorny weeds. Gifts that land in the weeds are gifts that are only as good as the most recent gift we have received. The thorny weeds are a metaphor for consumerism that springs up as the disease of needing the next best thing. These seeds get choked off by the tyranny of perpetual consumption. We know what that looks like. The rhythm of this perpetual consumption is that in short order what we have now will soon pale in comparison to what we could have in the near future. Cellphones are designed upon this principle, if you haven’t noticed. But the principle of consumerism doesn’t always have to do with things. Even church can fit into this cycle.

Let me give you an example: Someone finds a church. It is the newest thing in their life, and they are like, “Wow! I love this church.” They are here on Sunday, and then the weeds start to grow. They go to a party, and someone suggests they go in on a timeshare up at Whistler for the winter. “Wow! I’ve always wanted to learn to ski.” “Hello Whistler, goodbye church.” Then they get a kitten, and they decide to stay home and play with the kitten instead of going up to Whistler. So they skip the weekend trips to play with the kitten, who becomes a cat. Then spring rolls around, and they see all of the bikers whizz by their house. So they decide to take up biking. And the dis-ease of the next best thing continues on, as the weeds of consumption grow up around them. I know what this is like. I grew up on a diet of consumption.

The response to the thorny weeds is reinvestment in the gift itself. If the gift is life in the church, invest in it. Study. Join a small group. Become an acolyte. If the gift is skiing, invest in it. Take lessons. Make your own skis. Join the ski patrol. Invest in it! Depth, commitment, proficiency, and relationship is what moves the gift from the weeds of the next best thing to soil that is good for our soul.

Which brings us to the good soil. It is a metaphor for relationships anchored in the Kingdom of God. Gifts received on good soil build us up, and they build our community up. And the power of the good gift received is often best realized through the rearview mirror of our lives.

Let me give you an example: SuperTac hockey skates. I got them in fifth grade. They were for hockey, so naturally they were good for my body, and they fueled my 12-year-old mind with visions of my future (which didn’t actually include preaching). But in hindsight, the vision wasn’t really for the NHL (clearly), but for hard work, team building, and commitment. I remember Dr. Perry picking me up twice a week at 4:30 am for practice. I remember the discipline of my coaches and the camaraderie of my teammates.

And when I grew out of those skates I was bummed out. I retired them to a shelf in my closet, not the waste basket. And occasionally I’d pull them out and hold them and think of these good times and glory moments. They were a gift that was good for my soul, and good for my relationships.

God sows the seeds. The question is: How do we receive them? Some are received onto the path of entitlement. Worship moves them to the good soil of our soul. Some are received onto the shallow soil of vanity. Viewing the gift through the eyes of the giver moves them to the good soil of our soul. Some are received into the thorny weeds of consumerism, choked off by the next best thing. Reinvestment and doubling down moves these gifts to the good soil of our soul.

Now in truth sometimes we are given crumby gifts. We may wonder, “are these from God?” And while we have every right to ask that question, I’d invite us to consider, in light of these unsuitable gifts, the relationship rather than the gift itself.

For example: If the day is rainy, when you wanted sunny, consider not the rain, but the God who gives us weather. Or if you receive card from your grandmother with a five-dollar bill in it, and you’re 47 years old, consider the relationship, not the money. Or if all your clothes are at the dry cleaner, and you’re wearing a skirt that you bought twenty years ago at a second-hand store, and a fashion-challenged person comes up and says, “Hey, that’s a great skirt.” Consider the relationship, and that they really wanted to just say, “Hey, I think you’re great!”

It is enough to know it is a gift. It is enough to love the source. It is enough to keep the memory. It is enough to internalize the intent. It is enough know that the yield from seed received upon the good soil magnifies the soul 30 times, 60 times, or over 100 times all toward the end—as I have said throughout this sermon series—toward the end of the sanctification of the soul for the salvation of the world.