Sermon: Making The Most Of God’s Gifts: Receiving
Date: August 13, 2017
Scripture: Ephesians 4: 7-16
Arthur Bresci and Howard Aires grew up together in a small town in Pennsylvania. All through grade school and high school they were nearly inseparable . Where you found one, you found the other. Arthur called Howard “Skinner’‘ though no one seemed to know why. And so when World War II broke out, nobody was surprised when they enlisted in the army together. In his journal, Bresci recorded their experiences in the army. At first, he and Skinner were together. But when they were sent to the Asian theatre, they became separated. Skinner was taken prisoner by the Japanese at Bataan. A few months later, Arthur Bresci was also captured. As a prisoner, Bresci volunteered for work detail because he knew that it would take him away from the prison camp and perhaps give him an opportunity to work with prisoners from other camps where he might get word of his friend Skinner. As it turned out, the work detail involved a great deal of hiking and they would frequently pass by other prison camps, and while his guards talked with the other guards, Bresci would search the camp from outside the fence for his friend, even calling his name, as long as the guards would allow it. And one day, his search was rewarded. In his journal he documents his discovery with these words:
By all rules, Skinner was a dead man. I stood at the wire fence and watched my boyhood buddy, caked in filth and racked with the pain of multiple diseases, totter toward me. He was a dead man walking. Only his boisterous spirit hadn‘t left his body.
That camp was divided into three parts. There was the section for the relatively healthy prisoners who were suitable for work detail. And then there was the section for those who were sick and dying. The Japanese gave them some medicine and rations, hoping to give them enough strength to be able to get some more work out of them. And then there was the section for the nearly dead, the ones who were too far gone. They received no medical care or rations. They were simply left to die. The other prisoners called that section the “zero ward“, and it was from that section that Skinner had emerged. The diseases of the tropics unchecked, along with starvation, had shrunk Skinner’s frame from over 200 pounds to less than a hundred. His eyes were glazed over. He looked like a walking corpse. Bresci writes that he could hardly even look at him. He wanted so badly to help him but there wasn’t anything he could do. Their encounter lasted only a few moments and then the order came from his captors to be ready to move out. As Bresci stood at the fence, looking at his old friend, he felt the handkerchief that he wore around his neck. In a knot in that handkerchief was the only possession he had left. It was a ring that he had managed to hide from his captors. And he had kept it hidden, knowing that inevitably disease would catch up with him, as it did most of the prisoners, and perhaps he would be able to use the ring to bribe a guard to bring him medicine and rations. But as he stood there looking at his best friend, he undid the knot in the handkerchief and removed the ring and slipped it through the fence and whispered to Skinner, “Use it to wheel and deal.”What an incredible gift of love it turned out to be. His only possession. In the future it might be his only hope to live, and he gave it away to a friend who was already nearly dead. That‘s a remarkable love, isn‘t it? It’s one thing to give our best gifts to the strong. Or even to give things of lesser value to the weak. Or even to give out of our abundance. But to give our best, all that we have to the weakest ones requires a great love. And even more than that it requires great faith.Because Bresci‘s gift not only communicated his love to Skinner, it also said to him, “I believe in you. I believe you can survive this.” And with renewed hope, Skinner did survive. He began to watch the guards and he picked out the one that seemed to be the most sympathetic, and one day he decided to take the chance. So he gave him the ring. “Is this valuable?” the guard asked and when Skinner assured him that it was, he stuck the ring in his pocket and didn‘t say anything else. But a few days later, he woke one morning to find on his bunk a package of sulfa tablets. And then a few days more passed, and he woke to find some fresh fruit. And then there was a new pair of pants. And then one day a can of beef. And the gifts kept coming and slowly Skinner regained his strength. He was the only prisoner to leave the “zero ward” alive. It was an incredible gift. The gift of life. You know, Jesus told a story about a man who was something like Skinner. A young man, full of life, who one day demanded and received his share of his father’s estate and leaving his father as though he were dead already, made his way into the world. But it didn’t take long before he was taken prisoner by the temptations and lusts of the world, and when his money was all gone, he was left for dead. No food to eat. No place to stay. He found himself eating the leftovers from the pigs trough. By the time he turned for home, the hard life had robbed his body of most of its life. He was nearly dead. But his father had never given up hope, had never stopped searching for him. Standing at the gate and calling his name. And his wait was rewarded when he saw his son one day, staggering up the road, he ran to meet him. And Jesus said, he hugged and kissed him. And he sent someone to get him a new robe. And another to kill a fatted calf and start preparing a feast. And then the father took the ring off his finger and slipped it on the boney, emaciated finger of his son, whom he had given up for dead. What an extraordinary gift. Understand what that ring was. It was the symbol of his father. In those days, people did not sign their name, they took their ring and made an impression in wax. That ring was essentially the key to the father‘s estate. The one who wore it, spoke for the father. It was like bestowing a power of attorney. So it was no wonder the older brother was so upset. His father had never entrusted him with his ring, and yet he gave it to this son who had abandoned him and left him for dead. By giving it to his son, the father was doing more than conveying his love. He was saying, “I believe in you. In spite of all that has happened, I still believe in you. I trust you with my kingdom.” What an incredible gift. It seems to me that’s what Paul is talking about when he writes to Ephesus: To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. . . . When He ascended on high, He held humanity captive, and gave gifts to men. He entrusted man with His Kingdom. In essence, He slipped the ring on our finger and He said: I love you and I believe in you. What an incredible gift. And here‘s the good news. That gift is for you. It makes no difference who we are, God gives his gifts. We may be like Skinner or the prodigal son, near death, beaten down by the circumstances of life, the choices we’ve made, our hope gone, and yet God searches for us, and when He finds us, no matter what condition we‘re in, He does not look away. He slips the ring on our finger and says I love you. I believe in you even when you don‘t believe in me. Here’s your share of God’s kingdom. You see scripture makes it clear that our God is a great gift giver, no matter what condition we’re in. Whether it be the Manna and Quail that fell on the the Jews in the wilderness just when they were about to head back to Egypt and captivity or more spiritual gifts that are given to the people of Ephesus when their strength and faith was waning. And what are the gifts he gives. Paul talks about some of them in this passage and identifies others in some of his other writings. In your bulletin you should have found a paper labeled Spiritual Gifts Inventory. Please take that out and you‘ll find a listing of many of the Gifts that God gives us.
There is the gift of administration and leadership in the church.
And the gift of Apostleship, being a messenger (ambassador for Christ.)
And the gift of discernment, recognizing what is and what is not of God.
There‘s the gift of encouragement building up the body of Christ and one another
And the gift of evangelism, preaching and sharing the gospel.
And the gift of faith, a personal surrender and relationship with God.
The gift of generosity.
And the gift of healing, to bring wholeness.
Here‘s the good news. They are the gifts of life. All of them are gifts that God gives freely to all of His children. They are not given just to clergy persons, or special persons, or bestowed upon you when you join the church. They are given to everyone. We do not all receive the same gift. God’s church is made up of disciples with many different gifts in order that the body of Christ might be made whole. And, you need to know, that He has gifts for you. In fact, He has already given them to you. Where we struggle sometimes is recognizing those gifts that are within us already and receiving them for ourselves. Have you ever known the frustration of giving a gift that the intended recipient would not truly receive and put to use. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know what it is or that it’s for them in the first place. That‘s why I am giving you some homework this week. Take this discovery tool home and sometime during the week, take some time to complete it and pray that God will reveal to you, your areas of giftedness. I don‘t want to see any of these left on the pews because I know where you sit, and so does God. Our God is a generous God, a giving God, and He has great gifts for you, life saving gifts. We are an incredibly gifted people if we will open our hearts and minds to receive all that God has for us.
In her book, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard relates this experience from her childhood. She entitles the chapter Unexpected Gifts From The Universe and she writes:
When I was (a little girl), growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk on the stump of the old sycamore tree in front of our house or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the Penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: “surprise ahead“. (Show Picture). I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing , at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, an unexpected gift from the universe.
Friends, God has never hidden the fact that He is a great giver. How awesome to think that the Creator of the universe has many gifts for us, often unexpected ones, given to us without thought of merit, or our worthiness to receive. The problem is never God‘s desire to give, it is often our ability to receive. Because though He has planted His gifts within each one of us, only those who choose to follow Him can truly receive God’s gifts. And He is here this morning offering us unexpected gifts. So as we sing, won‘t you open your hearts and minds to all that He has to give to you today. To make the most of the gifts that God has for us, we must first be willing to see them and receive them. Won’t you come to this altar this morning and ready to receive all that God has for you.