Gifts, Etiquette, Words and Deeds

Luke 17:11-19

Matthew 25:14-30




Does anyone here remember Art Linkletter’s show called “Kids Say the Darnedest Things”?  Bill Cosby revived the show in the 70s, but it was Linkletter who made it work.  In each program, he would engage his little guests in conversation on any number of subjects, and they would never fail to provide hilarity and wisdom in equal doses.   Kids, of course, have no filters.  They say exactly what they think.  “How did your mommy meet your daddy?” Linkletter asked one little girl.

“Well,” she said, “Mommy was in the bathtub.  A man came to the door asking to speak to mommy.”

“Oh my,” Linkletter said, winking at the audience,  “What happened?”

“My little sister answered the door,” the speaker said, “and she let him.”

Kids do say the darnedest things – and their written correspondence is just as hilarious.  Here is a sampling of kids’ thank you notes:  Little Brendan drew a heart on his notebook paper, and wrote this very emotional message inside:  “Thank you mom for making me food so I don’t die.”

In a more violent expression of love, Brooke wrote: “Dear Mom.  Thank you so much for being my mom. If I had a different mom I would punch her in the face and go find you.”

Ben chose a nature theme for his letter:   Dear Mom, I love you more than rainbows and beautiful blue skies.  I love you more than buttercups and wings of butterflies. I love you more than cows.”  Ben

Henry’s message is more conversational:  “Dear Mommy, I do not think I say this often.  I love you very very very very very — okay this is the last one—very much and I’ve got a poam for you.  Roses are red just like your fase when dad eats our snack.”

But the best letters are bluntly honest:  Joyce writes:  “Dear God, thank you for my baby brother, but I really wanted a puppy.”  And Dillon writes, “Dear Grandma and Grandpa.  Thanks for what you got me. PS:  I forgot what you got me.”

Being raised in the ‘50s, I was made to understand that a written thank you note is the very foundation of etiquette. It didn’t matter if Aunt Virginia was in the room when I unwrapped the gift, and if I hugged her and told her thanks in person, I was still expected to send her a thank you note as soon as possible  – a full paragraph, not just one sentence. Even though Emily Post may allow up to 3 months, my mother did not.  By the end of Christmas break was the rule.   It was the price we paid for every gift!

In hindsight, I’m glad my mother required thank you notes, because it was the way in which we acquired a vocabulary for gratitude and a voice that was gracious.  And writing thank you notes required thinking:  What would I use $10 bill for?  And would that purpose be worthy of the giver and their sacrifice?

People truly love being thanked!  I do!  I love being thanked! But in recent years, even Emily Post has relaxed her standards.  If you can’t or won’t write a personal note on embossed stationary, any generous work of thanks will do whether e-mailed, texted, phoned, skyped, tweeted, or spoken in person.  “The most important thing about saying thank you,” says Post. “is doing it in a timely manner.” No matter the size of the gift, a simple thank you within a few days of receiving the gift is always best. “On the other hand, never saying thanks is not a social faux pas, it is a sin. By so doing, you insult, you disrespect the giver.   Gratitude is not just a social grace – it is a spiritual practice, a gesture of love and respect for others.

In today’s text from the gospel of Luke – which Noah read so beautifully—I find what may be Christ’s only recorded use of sarcasm.  Jesus asks, “Were not ten lepers made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?” Jesus, of course knows where they are.  He had sent the ten men, now healed, to show themselves to the priests – as was the law and the custom.  But the Samaritan could not resist returning to Christ.  He could not put off his gratitude.

Bible scholar William Barclay points out that, under ordinary circumstances, this Samaritan, this despised outcast, would never have been standing among Jews.  But, as it were, they were all lepers, and calamity makes for strange bedfellows.  At the point of healing, it should be noted, Christ makes no distinction between the sick Jews and the sick Samaritan.  To the gentile, he does not say, “You must first offer a sacrifice and profess Christ, and they you will be healed.” Or “Be circumcised and then come to me for healing.”  No, Jesus heals all ten and sends them to the temple; he does not say which temple.  And the Samaritan, like the dozens of marginalized people Luke focuses on, is the only one of the ten to see in Christ, the divine hand of God.  He alone returns to say thank you.  He alone is so overwhelmed by the grace of God in Christ, than he can do nothing else but fall at Christ’s feet in gratitude.

I can only imagine this man’s testimony in the weeks and years to come.  For the rest of his life, he will recount the day when a rabbi carpenter from Galilea healed him, cured his terminal disease, and in a flash removed the stigma of leprosy that had made him a pariah for years.  So in the account of healing the lepers, Christ’s gift comes with no strings attached. No response required.

But in the parable of the talents, there is an expectation.  The servants appear to already know that their master is a businessman, an entrepreneur who uses money to make money.  The reader is told that the master entrusts various sums of money to his men while he is gone –each according to his ability. (For, you see, that money is both a blessing and a responsibility.  Some can handle more; some less.)  It is a lot of money – the largest sum equal to 20 years’ worth of wages; and even the smallest amount a healthy sum!  Every one, the parable reminds us, receives something.  There is no servant so unworthy that the master gives nothing.  Note that:  There is no servant so unworthy that the master gives nothing. The implicit expectation is that they will make the most of it — use what has been entrusted to them.

In like manner, most of the tangible gifts we receive also come with implicit expectations.  When my sister and I were children, my aunt gave us dancing lessons.  The expectation was that we would learn to dance – or at least become a bit graceful. At graduation, my church gave me a bible.  The expectation was that I would read it.  When I was a freshman in college, my dad gave me a guitar.  My dad was a musician.  The expectation was that I would learn to play it.  Oddly, the first appliance we purchased in our married life, was a sewing machine.  Can you imagine!  The expectation was that I would sew enough to make good on that purchase.  And it did!!

When you give a gift,  what you most want to see is that the recipient is using it, enjoying it — reading that book, eating those chocolates, wearing that new sweater, spending that graduation money.  These are actions of gratitude, expressions of appreciation, that are another means be which we thank the giver.

Conversely,  discovering that the pie you took was put in the freezer, that the sweater you picked out was stashed in the bottom drawer, the guitar was never out of the box, and the Bible was only used as a coffee table book is so disappointing!  Someoone once said that the most tragic sight you can see in a church is cobwebs.  Cobwebs.  Because cobwebs tell us that the church is unused, often untouched from week to week.

So the master returns, eager to see how his servants have used the money he entrusted to them.  Two have put their gifts to work, but one just stashed it in the bottom drawer, put it in the freezer, never took it out of the box, set it on the coffee table, buried it in a field. The master is understandably angry.

The point is that God is understandably angry when we do the same.  To us, he entrusts a different sort of wealth:  talents,  personalities, interests, abilities, aptitudes, sensitivities, time, and resources. If you are waiting for God to send you a fully-developed talent like oil painting or violin playing, you will wait in vain.  Though God “gifts” everyone, not everyone is “gifted.”  Some folks have the gift of gab – the easy ability to talk to anyone.  That’s a gift.  Some folks have the gift of a good memory.  Some have a God-given compassion for children or animals.  Some have a long and varied job history.  Some have overcome great  illness or tragedy.  These are all gifts that can be used, shared, leveraged for God.  So God says, “Take a risk; put yourself out there. Show me a little gratitude!”

But we’re afraid, see. What if we lose the master’s investment?  [Ah, but this is the good part!]   We can’t! God’s gift’s have this magic property. The more of your God-given talent you spend on God’s work, the more God-given talent you will have. The “talent well” will never run dry; in fact it will overflow. The parable reads, “ For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” I would translate the moral this way:  29For to those who USE WHAT THEY have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who USE nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  By our words and actions, we show God our gratitude.

During many dark months in a German prison camp, Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom ministered to their fellow prisoners.  Despite the flea infested conditions, miserable cold, and constant hunger, they led Bible studies and prayer services and tended to the sick.  Between them, they had one small vial of medicine which they administered drop by drop to the sickest prisoners. Though the bottle felt completely empty, it continued to yield another tiny dose, another drop or two of hope.  Not until the day Allied Troupes freed the camp, was the bottle completely empty.  That’s how it is with God’s supply of talent.

         Oprah Winfrey said it well:  “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

Poet Dante Rossetti is believed to have said, “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” 

         Well, we have someone to thank – with our words, prayers, actions, and attitude.  Praise be the God!  Amen.