I remember the first time I ever really felt it. It was an intense feeling of wanting to get just the right gift for someone. The feeling came as something of a surprise because when growing up, gift giving was more an obligation than a joy. I drew Aunt Martha’s name out of a hat for Christmas and Mom went out selected something from her list, purchased it, wrapped it and put my name on it and I got credit even though I didn’t really care about her too much her because she smelled like the farm and pinched my cheeks too hard.
The year gift giving changed was when I was shopping for my grandfather. We were always close but when I was 17, I went through a year when my world fell apart. I was hospitalized for most of a year with a terrible bowel condition, couldn’t start college, and doctors suspected I wasn’t going to live through it. All my friends went off to start their new lives and I was trying not to die.
For much of the year, I was hospitalized far from home at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and he left everything to come and be with me. He was retired, fixed income but somehow he made the sacrifices and got a motel, and every day I was in the hospital his big round face and nearly bald head (think Charlie Brown head with soda bottle thick glasses) would be at my bedside. My parents had to work and couldn’t be there much, but he was there. And when I wasn’t in the hospital he’d call me up. “What are you doing for lunch today Maynard?” We called each other Maynard because there was an oatmeal commercial where someone said “That’s good stuff Maynard.” He always taught me to look for the good in all things and people. We’d go to lunch and play pool in his basement.
He was a kind and loving man. I’d frequently complain about something or someone. But I couldn’t ever get him to say a negative word about anyone–even people who clearly deserved it, like my brother who stole my car while I was in the hospital, wrecked it and then tried to cover it up by making it look like vandalism–which included denting it with rocks and slashing the tires. Even then grandpa wouldn’t back me up in the things I said about my brother. Instead he only saw the good in him. And more than anyone else, he helped draw it out of him.
We spent hours talking about life, about what’s important. When he was a young man, he nearly died, too. Out of his whole Army barracks in WWII, he was the only one who made it home at the end. He was hospitalized for a long time, bordering on the brink of death. He always got misty-eyed talking out two nurses who were there for him on his toughest days and gave him support and kindness to make it through.
He said, “I should have died. But for some reason, I didn’t.” Like many farm kids in that time, He quit school after 8th grade to work on the farm. But he was wise. He said, “There was a time when the only thing I wanted was to see the light of the next morning.” And because of complications from the war, years later he only wanted to live long enough to see my mom graduate from high school. “And now I’ve seen you walk across the stage, Dave. I would have never imagined. Life is a gift to be lived in faith. We don’t know how long we get. But it is precious and fragile. It’s all bonus. Don’t take any of moment for granted.”
Maybe you’ve noticed there is something different about people who have come terribly close to death. They get it. It’s all gift.
At Christmas that year, that’s when I felt it. That overwhelming desire to find a tangible way to show my appreciation, to thank him for teaching me how to be a person who makes a difference. To thank him for being there for me and doing everything he possibly could to help me through my time of need. But what could I give him to show him how I really felt? What could I express in a tangible way that would really get at it?
I didn’t have much money. He was good at carpentry and handyman stuff so I went to Sears. But everything felt so inadequate. You taught me everything I need to know about life and the kind of person I want to be. Here’s a hammer. That should make us about square. You held nothing back in being there for me in my need. Here’s a level. A good gift expresses something about the giver and the receiver.
Today our theme is “What Gift Can we Bring?” And we find ourselves asking the question about how we can express something deep within us. We have this connection to God, we have the image of God implanted in our very souls, we have this gift of life, and friends, and a beautiful world. We have moments. Times when we look back and think, “How did I get through that?” Times when we felt supported by invisible hands. Times when we’ve been moved by beauty and love.
Our scripture says God is love, the ultimate source of all the love you’ve ever felt inside or that’s been expressed to you. What gift can we bring to express our gratitude? But notice from that feeling I had for Grandpa that I wasn’t giving him something in the ways we think about giving at church.
I wasn’t giving out of obligation or guilt. No I wanted to, needed to.
It wasn’t because he couldn’t balance his budget without a gift.
It wasn’t about impressing him or trying to win him over to get what I wanted later.
It isn’t even about repaying a debt.
I was looking for a gift for Grandpa; giving is about expressing something deep. When you think about your relationship with God we are asking you to think about what gift you can bring.
Yeah, we are in a pledge drive where we are asking you to think about the gifts of your time and talent and treasure. But those are the low hanging fruit. When you’ve really given your heart to God, when you get in touch with that feeling to be glad you are alive, when you realized there is beauty and love in your life. Giving that stuff is easy.
But it also feels inadequate. A step, but it doesn’t get at it. I think of the Christmas Hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “What can I give him poor as I am. What I can I give him, I give my heart.”
Church is a place were love is made tangible. H. Richard Niebuhr said the purpose of the church is to increase the love of God and neighbor. You’ll hear all kinds of stuff to remind you of how you make that happen. When you give to the church, you give the gift of love.
I didn’t find the right Christmas gift at Sears. What I wound up buying was a used, two-piece custom-made pool cue, like Bad Bad LeRoy Brown had. It had a dragon wood burned into on the handle.
It made him smile and he used that cue until the day he died. But that didn’t really do it. Some how I knew even then that the only appropriate gift is to try to make my life a living legacy of what I’ve learned from him. To pay forward what he received from those two nurses and gave to me. A kind heart and generous disposition toward others. An appreciation for life as a gift. More than anything else I became a minister in a lifelong quest to help people remember that. That they are cared for by a God who sees the best in them and wants nothing more than to draw out the best from them.
We carry things on. We pay them forward. Even when it’s hard and a big sacrifice because we know it wasn’t as easy for others even if they made it look effortless.
I try to carry it on by being a grandfather to a 4 and a half year old little boy who will know that his grandfather will always and unconditionally love and be there for him.
We carry things on. We pay them forward. Who knows how much love and grace you can spread through being part of this church. Our whole thing is to let God’s love flow through us to touch others. For God is love.
Our church is organized around love. To be a place in this hateful and hurtful world dedicated to love and peace and justice. To be a people who are there for each other. Who remind each other to appreciate their lives, to say to each other. “Life. It’s good stuff Maynard!” God called us to this moment of history to be a loving people in this community. Where there are so many divisions, we open up and say whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here. Don’t you love this church, the idea of what it stands for?
In the next three weeks I want you to feel the challenge of our campaign question. To really pray over it.
“What gift can we bring? What gift, what token. What joy can convey the joy this day?” On the 28th we’ll be able to say this gift we now bring, this present, this token. And we’ll all know that it’s a token of the real gift–your life of well-lived in love and joy. Amen.