Gift Horse

Scipioville Presbyterian Church, November 19, 2023

I love my younger brother, Marv. Men in my generation of the Weiss family were goaltenders in the noble sport of ice hockey. Marv carried on the family tradition. Marv went a step further. After college Marv certified as an amateur hockey referee and officiated in the Schenectady area where he lived. Marv died early this year, and in a memoir, Marv counted up over 3,000 games he refereed.

Some years ago, one of my Skaneateles grandsons, Seth, was playing in a state tournament in Schenectady and Marv happened to be the referee. Seth caught a whistle, and Marv skated over to record Seth’s cross-check penalty. Seth asked Marv why he gave him a penalty. Marv said, “I didn’t give you a penalty, you earned it. I just awarded it.”

We’ve all been given gifts at one time or another. Sometimes we are overjoyed. Other times, “meh”. But most of the time we pay attention to the old adage, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It’s easy to do this with gifts that come with wrapping and ribbons. But other gifts, much bigger gifts, are often harder to accept with grace.

The biggest gifts are the gifts that come from God. And it’s in our human nature to look these gift horses in the mouth, too. We think, “Is this really a gift? Is it from God? Do I want this? Can I do this?” Or “Why me?” But, if we recognize the gift as a gift, chuck our fear out the window, and make the decision to “go with it,” you can begin to experience that feeling called, “Being in the zone” or “Flow.” One thing that’s true about God’s gifts, whether you’re an athlete, referee, musician, teacher or a mystic, your gift will bloom with practice, or it will wither if unused.

Just because you have a gift and recognize it as a gift, doesn’t mean it’s easy going. Any gift has to be nurtured and practiced - Malcom Gladwell in, Outliers, calculated you need 10,000 hours to hone your gift. Cassius Clay was gifted from the get-go, but he trained for more than 10,000 hours before becoming Muhammad Ali. Simone Biles is the most gifted gymnast of all time, but even she continues to train 32 hours a week every week. Simone put in her 10,000 hours. As did the Beatles and Bach, Picasso and Beethoven.

The gift can be an inborn talent. The gift can be a word or guidance from someone we trust. The gift can be a call of faith. It’s human nature to assess the “gift” and accept it or decide to run away from it.

In our first reading today Deborah the Prophet chooses Barak to assemble and lead the armies of Israel against an attacker. Barak has a gift for command. Barak agrees to answer God’s call, but he’s reluctant. He’s afraid he won’t be able to rally the troops. Even though Deborah assures him he is God’s choice for the job, Barak doesn’t trust his gift. He is afraid to command alone and agrees to lead the troops only if Deborah comes along with him.

Today we read only the introduction to this chapter, but it goes on: Deborah tells Barak that, because of his hesitation, the honor of victory will go to a woman, not to him. Deborah goes along with Barak and the army, and they wipe out the 900 heavy iron chariots of the enemy. Only one man escapes: Sisera, the enemy general. Sisera, on foot, runs through the hills to what he thinks - wrongly - is a neutral tent. The woman of the tent, Jael, takes him in, gives him warm milk to drink, a blanket and a place to lay his head. Then, recognizing what needs to be done, Jael whacks the sleeping enemy general in the head with a mallet, and, to make sure the job is done right, nails his head to the ground with a tent peg. I hate to admit it, but the picture in my mind is of Rosie the Riveter.

God will accomplish his purpose one way or another. It’s best for us if we overcome our fears, engage our gifts and go for it. If not, the job we were called to do will get done, but by someone else. Scripture remembers and honors Jael, who had the fearlessness and wit to dispatch the enemy general.

As the scene in Matthew’s Gospel opens, Jesus is teaching about the end times, warning his disciples of the challenging times ahead. At the same time, he encourages his friends to persist in faith until the end; which may be a long time coming. “Yet about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; no one but the Father alone.” Jesus warns them the day will come like a thief in the night, so “Keep awake.” “Stay ready because the Son of Man will come at the time you least expect him.

In these chapters of Matthew, Jesus uses seven brief parables to drive home the message: “Stay awake, be prepared, stay ready.” Last week many churches studied the fifth of the seven parables: the story of the five wise and five foolish girls waiting for the bridegroom. The foolish ran out of oil for their lamps; the wise planned for the long haul and brought full flasks of oil. The wise young women, representing faithfully practicing believers, go into the wedding banquet; the foolish scramble for more oil, return too late and find the door closed to them.

Today’s theme is the Gifts of God. Gifts from God are not the same as birthday gifts or Christmas presents. Gifts from God are meant to be used and then exchanged. Sort of a divine “regifting”. God’s gifts are on loan to us, and God hopes to receive them back well-used, honed, polished and multiplied. The gifts of God are redeemable at the end for Pearls of unimaginably Great Price. Proper use of these gifts will help us earn the prize of being counted among the sheep of Jesus’ flock. The misuse or ignoring of our gift can earn us the penalty of sitting on the bench with the goats.

Now, if the use of our gifts is so important, what is it that holds us back? Jesus has an answer. Jesus suggests it’s an unhealthy picture of GOD that holds us back. It’s a picture of God that makes us afraid of God rather than helping us be God-fearing. To be afraid of God, is to be apprehensive, anxious, worried that God is dangerous and wants to judge and harm you. To be God-fearing is to be in awe, in humble reverence at the majesty of God.

We see both pictures in the parable: Three servants had watched their master going about his business. They had been taught and shown how the business worked, and now it was time for their master to leave for a time. The boss is a wise boss, and gives each one capital, gifts, according to their personal ability. Not so much that they are overwhelmed; not so little they are unchallenged. One receives five bags of gold. Another two bags. The third one bag of gold. The master understood the capacity of each of his servants and in his wisdom gave to each exactly the amount they could manage.

The first took his five bags of gold, put it to work in the master’s businesses using the tools and techniques he’s learned from carefully watching his master. He worked the five bags of gold hard and gained a return of five more. When his master returned, the servant presented him with his gift of five bags of gold plus the five additional bags he had made by following what he learned from his master.

“Well done, good and faithful servant!” said the master. “You have proved trustworthy in a small matter; I will now put you in charge of something big. Come and share your master’s joy.”

The second servant did the same with his two bags of gold, and he made a return of two more. “Well done, good and faithful servant!” said the master. “You have proved trustworthy in a small matter; I will now put you in charge of something big. Come and share your master’s joy.”

The third took no chances. Despite the master’s example, the man who had been given one bag came and said, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man: you reap where you have not sown, you gather where you have not scattered; so, I was afraid, and I went and hid your gold in the ground. Here it is–you have what belongs to you.”

“You worthless, lazy servant!” said the master. “You knew, did you, that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered? Then you ought to have put my money on deposit, and on my return I should have got it back with interest. Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one with the ten bags. For everyone who has will be given more, till he has enough and to spare; and everyone who has nothing will forfeit even what he has. As for the useless servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth!”

“, I was afraid,” said the third servant. The two wise servants were in awe of their master, they learned from the wisdom of their master and exercised their gifts fully. The third was afraid of his master. He was anxious, apprehensive of the harm his fearsome master might do to him. Paralyzed by fear and worry, he dug a hole in the ground and buried his gift. Fearful, he took no risks. He made no gain. His master was disappointed.

First Corinthians teaches that our talents are given by the Holy Spirit, distributed as the Spirit determines. Your gift may be administration, it may be teaching, or service, or making, or speaking, or wisdom, or music, or contemplation. We all have different gifts, and each gift is necessary for the building up of God’s body, the church here on earth.

Don’t be afraid to discover your gift, whatever it is. Our job is to recognize our gift, then EXERCISE our gift, our talent. With confidence. Do not be afraid to put yourself and your gift forward. It will be redeemable for great value at the end.

Our gifts come from our Creator God. They are precious. Wow. Accept these gifts with awe and gratitude. We are called to use our gifts, to use them for God’s purpose. Don’t bury your gifts in some anxious fear. You aren’t alone. God knows we can’t do it without divine help. God gave us these gifts. We are forgiven our failings and lovingly urged to keep on keeping on. Get in the zone, go with the flow. At the end we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” … Come and share your master’s joy.”