TEXT: Luke 17:11-19; Psalm 92:1-4

One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons is about giving gifts. Snoopy and Woodstock have just exchanged gifts and they are back in their respective homes to open them. Snoopy opens his first. He's excited about what the package might contain, but when he opens it, he discovers that Woodstock, the bird, has given him bird seed. Snoopy sounds off about how it ought to be obvious that a dog wouldn't want bird seed, and he condemns the gift as thoughtless. Then in the next panel we see Woodstock opening his gift from Snoopy. It's a dog bone.

I have always liked that cartoon because it is so true. We tend to give gifts that we would like to receive ourselves, assuming that everyone's likes and tastes are the same as ours, instead of trying to figure out what the other person truly wants to receive. But as much as the cartoon tells the truth about the way we tend to give, it does not give us a good model for receiving.

In the cartoon, as in life, we tend to assume that gift giving is about the gift. I am thankful for things that I want or need, and feel bothered or resentful when I receive something I don't like or don't want. As much as we use the phrase, "It's the thought that counts," when push comes to shove, often it is really the gift that counts, with the possible exception of when a simple gift comes from a small child.

Whenever I think about gifts, I remember a gift I was given by a parishioner in the first church that I served. The woman was poor. When I visited in her home, she made a point that we visit in the kitchen, because that was the only room that had a wooden floor. All the rest of the rooms had dirt floors. Roaches roamed freely through all she had, and nothing was corrected by the landlord who seemed to collect his rent with no sense of obligation to make the place where she was staying livable.

I had been with this woman through the death of her husband, and she wanted to show her gratitude with a gift. And so one day she showed up at the parsonage with the treasure. It was a large stuffed dog. Once it had been white, but now it was a dingy shade of gray, and sewed all across its body were giant red felt hearts. She had selected it from among the pile of free items at the local social service agency. She knew how I loved animals, so she felt it was the perfect gift and knew I would want to display it prominently in my home.

The ugly stuffed dog was a true gift. The fact that the gift itself was not something that I would have even put out in a yard sale had nothing to do with the experience. I was grateful, but not because of the gift. In fact the gift itself was a problem. I really didn't want to display it anywhere, but neither did I want to hurt her feelings. I wasn't thankful that I now had a problem gift. I was thankful that there was love in her heart, that she valued a relationship with me, and that even extreme poverty could not shut off her own desire to pass on a gift.

That situation also made me realize that thanksgiving is a form of sacrifice...a form of giving in and of itself, not merely a response to what we have received. She was grateful for my care at the time of her husband's death, and her gratitude moved her to find a way to give a gift, even though she had no money. It was work for her. She had to go to the agency, think about something that was both free and might possibly fit with my likes and interests. She wrapped it up as best she could and walked to the parsonage to present it. Saying thank you to me was a sacrifice for her.

Likewise, it was a sacrifice for me to thank her. The gift was a pain. It was huge, ugly, and she was expecting it to be front and center in the parsonage. I had to choose between options, none of which I liked. I could always leave it out and have to deal with looking at it, I could put it in a closet somewhere and try to remember to haul it out anytime she or someone she knew came to visit, or I could stomp on her feelings by saying that it really wasn't something I wanted to display. Giving a gift of thanks to her cost me something, just as it had cost her to show her appreciation to me.

I think that is how it is supposed to be. I think giving is supposed to be a continuous cycle...that giving is not supposed to just hit a brick wall when the gift is received. The receiving of a gift is meant to evoke gratitude...thankfulness...not so much for the gift itself, but for the love which prompted the giving. The thankfulness for the gift of love begets more love, which results in further giving, the first act of which is giving thanks for the gift. And that act of giving continues to grow the love and to grow the relationship so that giving continues.

We interrupt that cycle when we think it is about the gift. If my giving of thanks is conditioned by the value or appropriateness of the gift, gratitude is cut off at the knees when the gift is something that does not suit me. On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I want us to remind ourselves that gifts are about a relationship between the giver and the receiver, not about the gift itself.

I think women know these things more instinctively than most men do, because women tend to be more oriented toward relationships. The year my husband gave me a bathroom scale for my birthday was not a happy year. I received the gift as an indicator of the state of our relationship...he is upset with me because I'm fat, while he simply thought we needed a scale in the bathroom. He thought it was about the object, I thought it was about relationship.

I think the laws of our country and our social practices show that relationship is the proper understanding of a gift. Sometimes we have to turn away gifts, not because the gift itself is worthless, but because it signals an inappropriate relationship. The courts are full of cases where people in business or politics have accepted gifts that could signal a conflict of interest or inappropriate relationship; and men, if a woman you are courting throws your flowers in the trash, it's not because she doesn't like roses. Honestly, trust me on this one. Gifts are about relationship, which means that receiving gifts with gratitude is about being thankful for the relationship that is offered.

This is why Thanksgiving qualifies as a holiday that can be safely observed in a church. As Christians, we worship the Great Giver. Our God is defined by giving from the moment that God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the end of time when God gives a new heaven and a new earth to those of us who wrecked the old one. And in the middle comes the greatest gift of all...God gives self...God comes in human flesh, giving up all the heavenly benefits in order to live the difficult life of a human being. It is a gift to us...a gift of relationship...and to accept the gift is to accept the relationship that is offered in the person of Jesus.

But there's more to it. Remember back to the story I read from Luke about the ten lepers that Jesus cured. The language in this story is interesting. What Jesus does for the 10 is to make them clean. Their disease had labeled them unclean in society, which meant that they were outcasts. They couldn't participate in religious life or really in anything. To touch an unclean person was to become unclean yourself, so they had to shout out "Unclean, unclean" wherever they went so that others would stay away. Jesus saw their condition, had pity on them, and made them all clean. With the priest's pronouncement of cleanness, they could enter back into society.

But there was one of the ten who interrupted his trip to the priests long enough to run back and say thank who recognized that there is a relational aspect in giving. The leper wasn't cleansed by was a purposeful gift, given to him by Jesus out of love. And when he returns and says thank you, Jesus adds something more. "Your faith has made you well," Jesus said. That puzzled me. Didn't Jesus do that for everybody? Weren't the others also made well? No. They are different words. The word for "made clean," is a technical, legal status. The word for "made well" indicates a wholeness of body and soul. To receive a gift is to receive practical benefit from what has been given. To give thanks for a gift is to enter into a loving and healing relationship with the giver.

Next Sunday we will round the corner into Advent...the first Sunday of the Christian year. That means this Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year, and we end it with the reminder to give each other, yes...but most importantly to God. The cycle of the Christian year is built around God's gifts to us. It begins in Advent with the gift of hope in the promise of a Savior. Then comes the giving of that gift as a poor baby born in a stable. Then comes the gift of Jesus' of healing, gifts of justice, the gift of someone who will champion those who have never had a champion before: the poor, the outcast, the women, the children, the sinner.

We remember the seemingly odd gift of wilderness and trial during Lent, and then move to the oddest gift of all...the strange gift of Jesus' death--the gift that shows how far God is willing to go in opposition to violence and hatred and misunderstanding...the gift that shows that God is willing to endure what we endure and to turn even the worst of events for our good. The cross. We go on to remember the gift of resurrection and eternal life at Easter and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. During the summer we remember the gifts of God in creation and throughout history, finally wrapping it all up this week in a festival of thanksgiving.

As we say "thank you" to God for each of these gifts, we accept the relationship that is offered and the responsibility that goes along with that relationship. When we say thank you for the earth, we acknowledge our role as stewards of it and our responsibility to use it according to God's wishes. When we accept a relationship with God based on the love shown in Jesus, we are agreeing to live in a way that does not violate that gift and that love. We are free to refuse the gift. God is the God of freedom...coercion is never an act of God. When God says, "I offer you love," we are always free to say, "No, I'd rather not." But if we embrace the gift, we have accepted the relationship, and if we both embrace the gift and thank God for it, I believe that we, like the tenth leper, will be made truly whole.


(c)2004, Anne Robertson

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