Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Peculiar Presents: Three Ways God Subverts Gift Giving Protocol (1 Peter 4:7-11)

Better than a WEGE: 1 Peter 4:7-11 

I never know what to say when someone gets Baptized.

Do you say congratulations?  It is a big deal…a huge and wonderful decision…I cheer and whoop…but congratulations seems weird, because the heavy lifting has been done by someone else.
But I want to celebrate.  I mean a gift seems appropriate.  But again, what makes a good Baptism gift?

How about a towel? 

Or better yet…body armor…because the Christian life isn’t easy?

But baptism isn’t the only place I get confused about gifts.  Gifts are a weird. 

Take for example, White Elephant Gift Exchanges…a couple years ago I ran into this delightful guide for dealing with this strange cultural tradition from blogger Stacy from Louisville.

Over the years (she says) I have become a connoisseur of White Elephant Gift Exchanges. (Hereafter referred to as "W.E.G.E.". And yes, we are going to pronounce WEGE phonetically.)  

Truthfully, WEGE brings out the worst in me. It's the gift stealing that upsets my delicate demeanor. If someone steals my gift I get this overwhelming desire to bludgeon them with a light-up, plastic molded Christ child from the tacky yard display up the street. That's right. Come up against me and I'll drop you like Santa down a chimney.
But not anymore.

You see, I have discovered that WEGE is not about the gifts. These days my goal is to sabotage the game. For a few fleeting moments it's as if Santa is just asking to be depantsed in the name of universally lame gift giving.

And then she offers some fun ideas on how to subvert a WEGE…particularly a church WEGE.

#1. Give away liquor. We all know that even mentioning alcohol in some church settings will get you blacklisted. So why not make everyone in the room uncomfortable right from the beginning? Chances are that though they may suspect you of bringing the Satan Water, there are at least 3 other couples they will suspect, too. 

My brother did this once...he got a 6 pack of the nastiest malt liquor he could find for a church staff wege…but then he took one out and left a IOU from the pastor in its place.

Visual gag with a 5 pack and a note from Dan Seitz…”Got thirsty…I owe you one.” –Dan Seitz

She and the commenter’s offers other helpful options for how to subvert a Christian White Elephant gift exchange like Lingerie, 50 shades of grey and live goldfish

Why a live goldfish: “Because a Golden Retriever is hard to wrap and has a tendency to pee.”

But my personal favorite is another one my brother actually attempted…a gift caper she calls:

Is that my purse? Here is how she describes it.
This one is serious. I have done it but you've got to be slick. When one of the women at the party isn’t looking, take her purse, throw it in a gift bag, put it under the tree.  Then just sit back and enjoy the confused recognition and delightful awkwardness all the way around.

Gifts are weird.

Turns out that giving really good gifts is hard…and I’m bad at it.  And I’m not the only one.
We say “It’s the thought that counts” but really, isn’t that is just a kind way of saying “Nice try.  I get it.  Gift giving is super hard”

But you know who is really good at the whole gift giving thing?

Justin Beiber.

No, just kidding.  It is just that you expected me to say ‘God’ and I was going to say ‘God’ and it all just seemed really predictable.  But even if you’ve heard it before it’s the truth.  God is a bomb gift giver.

It turns out omniscience and omnipotence are a pretty great skill set for the whole gift giving thing.
And that is why in the book of 1 Peter, a passage about the gifts God gives follows so closely after a passage about belief` and baptism.

Because, the best gift I can think of to celebrate belief and Baptism might be a towel…but God has something much grander in mind.  And in tonight’s passage Peter introduces us to at least three aspects of God’s gifts towards us that are kind of wonderfully peculiar.  Three ways that God gives gifts on the occasion of belief signified by baptism that are better than we give gifts to each other.
But first, It has been several months since we took a break from 1 Peter to take on the playlist series, so let me orient you to where we are in the book.

In chapter 2 and 3 Peter talks about how Christians should interact with hostile powers…with oppressive institutions and dangerous people: he helps the Roman Christians think about how to deal with political oppression and economic oppression and…marriage…which in Roman culture fit pretty neatly in the realm of ‘things that are oppressive.’

1 Peter 3:13-4:6
1 Peter 4:7-11
How to Interact with Hostile Powers
How to Interact with the Family of Faith*
1.       The Emperor
       1.    Love
2.       Slave Masters
2.    Show Hospitality
3.       Marriage
3.       Serve

But in chapter 4 he turns his attention from how to deal with opressors…to how to interact with other Christians (which isn’t as dangerous but can still be pretty messy)…

7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly[1], since love covers a multitude of sins.[2] 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Turns from how to deal with hostiles…to how to deal with each other (which isn’t as dangerous but can still be messy)…

Some clear thinking on grow to interact with ‘one another’
1.       Love – not a fuzzy word (of pro-social emotion) – the active discipline of overlooking offense
2.       Hospitality – living invasiable lives and meeting concrete needs
3.       Service à Gift exchange

And all three of these have two things in common – they are essential for sustained relationship and they are incredibly difficult.  Because, well, take a minute and look around this room.  What is it filled with.  It is filled with people.  And all people even Jesus’ people are strange critters.  We are unaccountably kind and creative and beautiful, but we are also petty and vicious and selfish.  The only way to build something out of people like us is with tools like love, hospitality and service.

But God doesn’t just say…so, um, good luck with that. 

He gives us resources…Look with me in verse 10

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace”

God forms unique capacities in us, through a mixture of our natural talents + the skills we develop through practice + straight up supernatural interventions of the Spirit in our lives to give us what we need to be the kind of person characterized by love, hospitality and service.

This is a common trope in film. 

In LOTR – Gladriel gives them gifts.  We know its going to be hard…but we are encouraged knowing that they have been equipped for the task.

But probably the most iconic instance of the ‘equipiing gift’ trope is Q in the Bond franchise. At the beginning of the film Q gives bond something weird and wonderful, that unacontably becomes exactly the thing he needs to fulfill the mission.That is what tonight’s passage argues.  That the strange and eccentric gifts that God has given you will turn out to be exactly what you need to be agents of love, hospitality and service as you follow Jesus and knit yourself to his people.

1. God’s Doesn’t Give Gift Cards

I like to give generic gifts, because I hate inefficiency.  And human-to-human gift giving is inefficient.

In a recent book, an economist analyzed the economic inefficiency of gift giving.

Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients' preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for the gifts is usually less than the givers paid.

Now there is a pleasant sentimental insight…Gift giving destroys value.  If someone buys you something you wouldn’t buy for yourself, the difference between what they paid for it and what you would pay for it is the value that was destroyed in the transaction. 

It is called ‘value subtraction.’

One analysis on Christmas a couple years ago found that $12 BBBBillion dollars worth of value was lost in these transactions.  $12 billion dollars of value subtraction.

And so human gift givers have a choice.  Show love and care by observing someone carefully and trying to give them a gift that matches with their hopes and dreams (within your budget) and risk value subtraction…or they can give an Amazon gift card.[3]

And this is what is so remarkable about God’s gift giving

God doesn’t give gift cards.  He gives perfectly customized gifts without value subtraction.

10“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace”

Look at the second word of that verse

‘Each’ – means that everyone gets something.  At first this seems pretty generic.  It raises what I like to call: The Dash Paradox: “If everyone is special, no one is.”

At first, by Dash’s logic if God gives gifts so promiscuously it doesn’t feel special to receive them.  It is like the guy on the corner in old sac handing out taffy coupons.  Everyone gets them, so they are not special.

But Dash’s logic fails, because he only evaluates on one axis…speed. 

But, God recognizes that if there was only one axis of value, Dash would be right.  But there isn’t.  And because of his ‘diversified and varied grace’ God has made a situation where each person has the capacity to actually be incalculably valuable  bring different things to the table, which is why God gives personally customized gifts.

But the look at how the passage describes what God Gives you:

10“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace”

“…God’s varied grace…” or in another translation “God’s diversified grace…”

But God doesn’t just give everyone generic gifts.  The answer to the question how can I be special when every one is…is that God has customized what you have to offer.  You are literally irreplaceable.

Listen to what CS Lewis says on this…
“There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” - Lewis

Remember the passage we covered in week 1 – God builds a building with people…I said this was kind of like Michael Johansen’s ‘junk art.’  And green crocs may seem pretty useless…except that they were exactly what he needed to make something beautiful.  Be the green crocs
But if we see ourselves as part of something bigger, we can be exactly right even if we are acutely aware of all our lack.

 “…God’s varied grace…”  “God’s diversified grace…”

God’s grace to you will look different than God’s grace to someone else.

Diversity is a big word on campus.  It is one of the central values of this place and places like it.  But you know what?  Way before diversity was a thing in the university, it was one of the central values of the Church.

God has a diversified portfolio of kingdom agents.  He doesn’t need a whole closet of green crocs.  He only needs one.

There is a caricature of the church as a bunch of people all trying to fit a particular mold that shun those that don’t fit. [4]  But that could not be more foreign to the Christian Scriptures.
The church was into diversity about 1800 years before the university.  I mean, welcome to the party UC Davis…but um…the value of diversity has kind of been around a little while.[5] 
But you know what real diversity takes…love…because sin makes differences a big deal.
But the problem with varied gifts…is we tend to over emphasize the value of ours.  And that is why you get churches that are really into one thing…because all of the people with that kind of gift got together.  Which leaves them distorted. 

So in giving perfectly personalized gifts…God avoids two common gift giving blunders:
-showing indiffence with a generalized gift
-value subtraction - giving a gift with less value to the person than you invested in it

However, while both of these are a bummer…neither are the most egregious social offense when it comes to gift giving….What is?

But once again, God is not constrained by miss manners…or the ironic post modern version…Seinfeld

("I mean isn’t that basically what Seinfeld was, an ironic, deconstructing, postmodern version of Miss Manners - Miss Manners for generation X: the generation who just couldn’t seem give a crap no matter how hard we tried but still need some basic principles to organize our social interactions.")
But God doesn’t need Seinfeld to tell him how to do this thing…the second way God gives gifts better than us, is that…

2.  God Intends Regifting

Why is it that regifting so socially offensive?

In human gift giving, regifting is the ultimate faux paux because it shows ingratitude for the gift AND a lack of care for the new recipient.[6] 

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another…”

The gifts that Jesus give us aren’t for us.  The equip us to be his agents of service and the gospel.

Or in other words God’s gifts come with missions. 

Lets go back to the opening scenes of a James Bbond film, where Q gives bond some new gadget.   
The gadgets aren’t just his to enjoy.  They are tools for a mission.  They were given to him with a purpose.

Illustration: Imagine if James Bond got those gifts but had no mission.  Imagine Q hooked him up with an amazing set of tools for a dangerous and essential mission, and instead, he just used them for stuff he wanted.  Actually, you don’t have to imagine it…because we know Ryan Benoit who can just show us…(Benoit film of Bond using a gadget for pedestrian things)

http://youtu.be/JNWhUstVjmg  (click on it...it's amazing)

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another…”

God intends regifting.  His gifts come with missions.

And finally, the third peculiar but wonderful aspect of God’s gift giving, is that:

3. The ultimate goal of God’s gifts are his glory.

Look back at the passage with me

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”

This is the first occurance of the word ‘glory’ in 1 Peter but it won’t be the last.  “glory” shows up 6X in the last 21 verses of the book.[7]

And look at how glory is apportioned here:

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”

Glory to God through Jesus  And Glory to Jesus – which makes this another place where the New Testament have a sort of confusing but unequivicol equivalency between God and Jesus.
The ultimate purpose of gifts and the services they render to other humans, is glory to God and to Jesus.

Most sane theologians agree that if Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the Greatest American theologian, he deserves to be in the conversation.[8] One of Edward’s fines works was a book titled:

“The End for Which God Created the World”

Where he answers the question –why does stuff exist…not just your gifts…not just you…not just people…like all of it…why does stuff exist…and he uses a lot of big words and technical language…but his answer is ‘Stuff Exists for God’s glory.’

Now, if you are here tonight and aren’t really in on the Jesus story or the Jesus following life, that idea probably bugs you.  The idea that God would give gifts ultimately for his own glory seems weird at best and even kind of unworthy of him.  If you are here tonight and you belong to Jesus, well, frankly, you probably find that weird too but don’t tell anyone because you feel like it isn’t supposed to seem weird. 

And if you fit in either of those categories…you are in very good company.  Listen to what CS Lewis says about God’s glory:

“There is no getting away from the fact that “glory” is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian Writings…This makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that way I fancy I am a typical modern.  Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous.  Either glory means to me fame or it means luminosity.  As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven.  As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb”

Lewis is right on both counts…First…Glory is a weird idea to moderns…

And second it is a very central idea – some say the central idea – in our world view. 
So here’s the first problem.  The word does not mean to us what it meant to Peter’s Roman audience. 
To get a sense of what it might have meant…let’s turn to everyone’s favorite period roman:

Maximus Decimus Meridious…in that great opening scene of Gladiator, when they are going up against the last of the Germanic resistance…the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius turns to Noah…er…Maximus and asks

Marcus Aurelius: Tell me again, Maximus, why are we here?

After conquering Europe the Emperor is conflicted and confused about why he has done it.  But his general is not…Maximus answer is swift and confident:

Maximus: For the glory of the Empire, sire.

Aurelius was questioning and uncertain…but Maximus wasn’t.  For him it was always about the glory of Rome…even in the end. 

Glory animated vigorous action in many Romans.  For them it was a big beautiful word.  They wanted to exist for the magnification of something big and wonderful and permanent…they just backed the wrong horse, when they decided to live for the glory of Rome.

But Glory is a word.  It was the best word Peter had in his context. 

In Roman culture glory was everything…but the strength and meanings of words actually change with time and culture. 

Now the English word ‘glory’ can’t hold all the water Peter needs it to carry.  If someone seeks glory in post-modern English they are self aborbed.  [9]

But what Peter is saying…all that passion…and all that regard and all that effort and all that action that animated someone like Maximus…should be oriented towards Jesus and his kingdom.

…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. 

But the second reason that God calling us to his glory seems self involved is that we have grossly under predicted God’s value.

God doesn’t want us to vest in his glory because he is the insecure mediocre student on in your group project team who wants all the credit.

No one has to tell him he is great for him to know it with total confidence. 

He’s not like us…his self assessment is not tied to the assessment of others.

The Christian Scriptures and tradition are obsessed with God’s glory…not because he needs us to tell him…but because God knows that he is the only thing that won’t disappoint us.  God wants us to be into his glory so WE won’t be disappointed…[10]

By asking us to vest in his glory is lovingly directing us to most satisfying thing in the universe.
Do you see how wonderful and counter intuitive that is?  He wants us to persue his glory because he loves us and wants only the very best for us.[11][12]

God’s glory isn’t just a job, it is a hobby. 

God’s command that we be interested in him is not because he wants our attention…its because he’s the most interesting entity in the Universe.  And this is where CS Lewis goes in his essay on “The Weight of Glory.” 

“We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant y the offer of a holiday at sea.  We are too easily pleased.”  -CS Lewis

God’s concern for our concern for his Glory comes down to that…’we are too easily pleased’ with the universe…there is more for us to discover.  And this is what Jonathan Edwards concludes as well.

“God’s respect for the creature’s good,
And his respect to himself
Is not a divided respect,
But both are united in one,
As the happiness of the creature aimed at,
Is happiness in union with himself.” 80

Piper – who is the living advocate of Edwards theology – coined the term “Chrisitian hedonist” because a preoccupation with God’s glory is a preoccupation with our own satisfaction[13]

“It is fitting that God’s glory be delighted in as well as known.”

And so tonight, as we celebrate belief through baptism.  As these six participate in a public symbol that they are in on God’s mission to restore his creation through Jesus.  As the declare that they want to be people who do relationships in the context of love, hospitality and service.  It is helpful for them and us to remember that we are not just left to our devices.  Jesus pulls a Q for his diversified portfolio of agents.  He gives us each gifts according to his varied grace.  And these customized gifts come with customized missions….because he intends regifting.  And the ultimate goal of the gifts he gives is that we would find satisfaction in his glory…that we would recognize that he is the most interesting thing in the universe.

10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

[1] Love is a vigorous tenatious thing…not something that happens naturally.
[2] Love is a game of whack a mole…the sin keeps coming, trying to undermine the relationship…and love just keeps beating it down...  Or darkness encroaches, but love transforms it (there has to be a fantasy film version of this)
Church can’t be petty.  Grown up Christians overlook small offenses…and deal lovingly with big ones.
Grudem “But where love is lacking, every word is viewed with suspeicion, every action is liable to misunderstanding, and conflicts abound – to Satan’s perverse delight.
[3] One of the ways that people get around the inefficiency of gift giving is to give generic gifts.  Something everyone can use.  In a sense it is kind because it says “I want you to be able to use this gift.”  But in a sense it is awkward because it says “I haven’t really tried to know you or imagine your desires and needs enough to make a real shot at figuring out what you would love.”
[4] This is the reason I am a little uncomfortable with spiritual gift bubble trons or internet quizzes…because it ends up creating a 6 to 12 bin taxonomy of functional value to the church, when God’s graces are far more diversified.
[5] Sometimes we bristle at ‘diversity agendas’ because our world view seems to get marginalized.  But the value of diversity actually emerges from the doctrine of sin.  That we are all kind of partial instances of humanness.  That we need the company of very different people to help us realize our full humanness.  Diversity is our idea.
[6] It is a two for one act of douchiness
[7] Glory becomes a theme from here on out.But this is the kind of language that would emerge from the orthodox theology of the incarnation and trinity
[8] (Judging him by the ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God sermon’ would be like making all of your conculions about Jesus by his Woe to Corizin speech’ Piper)
[9] Edwards: Why doesn’t God’s preoccupation with his glory make him selfish?
“If God is supremely valuable he should value himself supremely” (in economic models omniscient actors find the best value…well, God is an omniscient actor and finds the best value in the universe…its him)
“God esteeming himself supremely is not contrary to his esteeming human happiness, since he is that happiness.”
“Nothing is more loving than for God to exalt himself (over dead end quests) for the enjoyment of man”
God directing us to his glory is an act of love, because it is the source of satisfaction
Illustration – someone who chooses an alternate, lesser option
[10] Edwards “What God values for its own sake in creation is his ultimate end in creation.”  Dictate 5 – The End for which God Created the world.p145
[11] Edwards – “The degree of regard for a being is in proportion to his excellence.”
[12] Jonathan Edwards – Probobly the Greatest American theologian (Judging him by the ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God sermon’ would be like making all of your conculions about Jesus by his Woe to Corizin speech’ Piper) wrote a book “The End for Which God Created the World” that Piper republished with an ‘intro’ (twice as long as Edwards work) where he answers the question –why does stuff exist…not just you…like all of it…and he uses a lot of big words and technical language…but his answer is ‘for his glory.’
[13] Lebron just recently said he will be one of the best players of all time… there wasn’t much outrage because… well… it’s true

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